Just as Little League practice or gymnastics classes help kids become better athletes, early habits of service to others can help children develop into more caring, selfless individuals. Volunteering, either individually as children, or together as a family is a rewarding way to help your community.

“Getting involved in volunteerism gives kids an opportunity to see what a difference they can make, and that’s something that soccer and ballet don’t necessarily do,” says Mary Reed Durkin, executive director of First Look, a Birmingham, Alabama organization dedicated to getting young people involved in community service. “When kids volunteer, they have an opportunity to meet others from different areas and all walks of life, and they’re able to come together, shake hands and build their community together.”

Aside from the obvious benefit of serving others, volunteering offers other advantages for your children and your family. Here are six reasons why you should consider giving it a try:

1. Volunteering broadens children’s experience. From the environment and animals to the homeless and disaster victims, there are enough opportunities available to keep volunteers learning something new with every service experience. By volunteering, your kids will not only make a difference in their community, they’ll also become more aware of the diverse individuals and needs that make up that community.

“For the kids who volunteer with us, one of the best benefits they get is the opportunity to be around people who aren’t just like them, but may be of another race or social station,” says Coach Ed Knight, executive director of Sandlot Sports, a Birmingham outreach program for inner-city children. “It’s really good for them to see the world from someone else’s point of view.”

“Giving kids opportunities to serve lets them create a bond with others in their community,” Durkin adds. “It helps level the playing field and broaden their frame of reference.”

2. Volunteering develops responsible citizens. Volunteering helps children develop a stake in their own communities. As they plant trees or help the homeless, they learn about issues that are facing their communities and how they can be a part of the solution. It also helps raise children that are compassionate and cognizant of the suffering of others. Many high schools are beginning to require community service as a condition of receiving your high school diploma, but volunteerism should begin much earlier.

3. Volunteering teaches children useful skills. When young people become volunteers, they’re not just helping others. They’re usually learning skills and having valuable experiences that will help them in the long run as well. Many youths’ volunteer experiences turn into job opportunities or career aspirations, Durkin says.

“A lot of kids who volunteer with BEAT learn job skills, as well as the joy of helping someone less fortunate,” says Henry Scruggs, construction coordinator of the Bethel Ensley Action Task (BEAT) project, which builds homes for low-income families.

“Some kids end up going into the trades they learned while working with us, or they want to go home and fix up their own house or paint their room. They learn skills that they can take with them through life,” Scruggs says.

4. Volunteering builds children’s self-esteem. Children who give their time and energy to a worthy cause learn that they can make a difference in the world, and that, naturally, makes them feel good.

“The best way to feel good about yourself is to help someone else,” says Ginny Slay, administrator at the Exceptional Foundation in Homewood. “Service to others really does help build your own self-esteem.”

“Our volunteers get as much out of this program as the kids we serve,” Knight, of Sandlot Sports, adds. “It builds their confidence when these young volunteers see how important they are to the kids they’re serving.”

5. Volunteering helps children develop leadership skills. Through increased confidence and a realization of their ability to make a difference, community service is often an instrument for developing young leaders. Colleges and universities see the value, as 90 percent of all colleges that require application essays also require proof of service involvement, Durkin says.

“One of our First Look volunteers just earned a full scholarship to RhodesCollege strictly for her service involvement and leadership,” she says. “Youth volunteerism can translate into a passion for a cause that can develop great leaders.”

And for those leaders of tomorrow, there’s no better training than volunteerism today. “Young people will be our future leaders, so it’s important for them to know what the real problems and issues are in our communities,” Knight adds. “If there’s going to be change in the inner city, for instance, today’s young people will be the instrument of it. That’s why we love to work with young volunteers.”

6. Volunteering is a great way to spend time with family. For today’s families who rarely have time to spend together – much less, the time to add another commitment to the schedule – volunteering can actually be a solution.

Volunteering together can give your family a chance to spend time with each other, while doing something that really matters. It may also lead to opportunities to discuss as a family some of the tough issues facing your community, not to mention encouraging values of service and generosity.

“As the saying goes, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’” writes Mary Thoele in her book, Family Serve: Volunteer Opportunities for Families. “Volunteering is one of the ‘loudest’ actions you, as parents, can take to show children what it truly means to be a contributing member of a community. By role-modeling this type of behavior, parents are beginning a tradition of compassion that can be passed on from one generation to the next.”

  • Nancy Mann Jackson is a Birmingham-based freelance writer and community volunteer. Updated August 2012