By Tim Johnson
For some kids his age cooking and serving food to others may not sound like fun, but 11-year-old Jack Capombassis of Toronto says that it’s actually one of his favourite things. Capombassis participates in Kids Cook to Care, a program that takes place once a month during the school year, where a different celebrity chef teaches families to prepare an ethnic dish that is later served to those in need. Kids chop, slice and dice with a little help from parents before sharing the fare with those who come through the doors of the community centre or soup kitchen where the session is taking place.
“Volunteering teaches you how to care about others, and you can learn a lot of stuff from it,” Capombassis says. He adds that volunteering has other benefits too. “After all the food is served, we get to eat whatever is left,” he says.
Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, a national non-profit organization dedicated to increasing and supporting volunteerism and civic participation, observes that the holiday season, with its focus on gifts and goodwill, is a natural entry point for family discussions, reflections and experiences in this area. She believes the adolescent years are the perfect time for kids to hone their attitudes toward giving back. “It can be really, really powerful at this age,” says MacKenzie, an Ottawa mom. “Volunteering can be the first lens that a young person has into the fact that they can play a role in changing the world or in changing somebody else’s life.”
But in a practical sense age can be a very limiting factor. Because preteens are too young to bring in their own money (which they could then donate) and not yet able to fill most volunteer roles open to older teens and adults, MacKenzie recommends that parents put them in charge of deciding where the family will volunteer. “Start with their passions and ask them to reflect upon what they feel lucky about — that’s particularly appropriate at the holiday time. So if they feel really lucky that they have a beautiful dinner, then maybe the family should get involved in the food bank,” says MacKenzie.
Shawn Mitchell, director of content for charityvillage.com (an extensive site with non-profit listings, jobs and news), notes that there are certain cases where preteens can get involved on their own, including providing support in online campaigns, as long as they have support from a parent to do so. But perhaps the greatest opportunities can be found in schools, where budding humanitarians can take ownership of ideas and initiatives they’re passionate about by getting involved with — or even initiating — clubs. “Some of the fun and inspiring stories that we see and hear about have happened in school,” says Mitchell.
One such story is MacKenzie’s 10-year-old son, Elliot. In addition to helping an elderly neighbour (another option for those seeking to help out independently), Elliot’s love for marine biology and green initiatives have driven him to go out on a regular basis with his family, garbage bag in hand, to clean up the shores of the Rideau Canal and River near his home. He has also sought to raise awareness about Greenpeace on Twitter and has taken his environmental awareness into the classroom, handing out literature and raising money for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine wildlife conservation organization. “It makes me feel good because I know that I did something that I love and that I am helping to protect more animals,” says Elliot.
MacKenzie says that volunteering has always been a priority at home; by both the modelling and encouraging of it, such behaviours came naturally to her son — something that other families can emulate. She adds that families can keep the giving spirit alive by using holidays and other significant days as reminders and anchors for their volunteer activities (taking one day out of a week-long vacation to give back, for example, or doing something special on Earth Day). She adds that getting involved at a young age can help set kids up well for life. “Elliot has gained enormous confidence through doing this,” she says. “You’ve got a greater chance of kids accomplishing something when they’re empowered to make a difference in this world.”
Search Charity Village’s Main Street listings at charityvillage.com for family volunteer opportunities or read: The World Needs Your Kid: How to Raise Children Who Care and Contribute by Craig Kielburger, Marc Keilburger and Shelley Page (Me to We Books).
CF’s contributing editor Tim Johnson enjoys combining giving back with his passion for travel by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.