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Children & VolunTourism: A True Family Vacation!
This month our 3-Q's are for Dawn Lehman, Co-founder of Kids Korps USA...
1) Dr. Lehman, as a cultural anthropologist and co-founder of Kids Korps USA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit youth volunteer organization that engages young people, ages 5 through 18, in community service, what do you consider to be the primary benefits of introducing volunteerism at such a young age?
There is little research on volunteerism among young children. Most of the research focuses on the impact of volunteerism on teenagers and young adults. One reason for the dearth of literature on young children is they are not viewed as significant contributors to their community. The majority of adults do not envision a five-year-old child exercising with residents of a senior home or feeding the homeless. Five-year-olds, many say, are selfish and self-centered; they are not at the developmental stage to give of themselves to others. Kids Korps USA has discovered that young children can, indeed, help their communities if given the opportunity.
Young children can understand that giving to someone else is a good thing. On numerous occasions, children have shown us that they feel the effects of their volunteer efforts on others. As a six-year-old walked out of a nursing home one day, he put his hands over his heart and said, “That makes me feel good right here.” He could not articulate what he felt, but he knew he had just experienced a very special feeling, a physical sensation, while helping others. He liked the feeling and wanted to do it again.
Young children are also more perceptive than we think. On the way to a Kids Korps event, a six-year-old girl asked her mother what they would be doing as volunteers that day. Her mother said that they would be decorating paper fans for seniors at the nearby nursing home. The little girl thought for a couple of moments, then boldly declared, “Why don’t we just write ‘Get me out of here’ on the fans.” Her mother was amazed at her daughter’s ability to understand how seniors can be confined and lonely.
Kids Korps USA believes there is value in giving children opportunities to give back at a young age. By “getting outside of themselves,” children learn about their social and natural environment. Volunteering builds character and teaches responsibility. By the time they are teenagers, they have developed a value system, and they are more prepared to make decisions about their life – about the people they hang out with and the things they elect to do in their free time.
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For many youth and young adults who started volunteering at a young age, volunteerism became a habit leading to a lifelong commitment to helping their community.
Kids Korps USA operates on the premise that volunteering encourages youth to care about the world around them and, thus, has a positive influence on their lives. Mobilizing youth to give something back not only helps their communities but also the kids themselves, boosting their self-esteem and combating boredom and a sense of isolation – some of the biggest factors, experts say, in reducing youth violence.
According to the Independent Sector (1996), teens engaging in volunteer work reported:
- Doing better in school and improving grades
- Developing new career goals
- Learning about career options
- Learning how to respect others
- Understanding people who are different
- Developing leadership skills
- Understanding the qualities of good citizenship
- Learning how to solve community problems
2) From your experience with Kids Korps USA how would you describe the impact upon the family unit - parents, non-participating siblings, and participating siblings - when young people participate in community service?
With our fast-paced lifestyles, it is often difficult to bring families together for one common purpose. Family volunteerism provides opportunities for children and their parents to develop interpersonal communication skills, work together as a team, share the spirit of caring and giving, and understand their place in the greater community. Families become closer and more communicative.
Kids Korps USA has discovered that the spirit of volunteerism is contagious. When one sibling becomes a volunteer, very often other siblings become involved. One youth, Tom, went with a group of volunteers to help build houses in Mexico. He had to make a decision: Should he go to Mexico or should he stay home to watch the Super Bowl game? With much thought, he decided to go to Mexico. His brother, Joe, chose to stay home that weekend to watch the game. His mother didn’t push the trip on Joe; she wanted him to make his own choices. When Tom and mother returned from Mexico, they raved about their experience. Both glowed with happiness. Joe noticed how grateful Tom was for his weekend experience. Tom didn’t care that he had missed the game. He had gained so much more in Mexico. The next day, Joe told his mother that he would like to become a volunteer on the next trip to Mexico. His mother was excited because she knew that their excitement had touched Joe. Now, both of her sons wanted to volunteer with her to help others.
3) If you were creating volunteerism projects for travelers and their children, what would you identify as the "necessary" components for delivering the best experiences for the young people?
I believe all children should have service learning experiences: They learn about their social and natural environments before engaging in hands-on service in the community; they engage in service activities that increase their knowledge of the world; and they reflect on what they have experienced. Parents and teachers can play an important role in providing service learning experiences for youth.
Kids Korps USA encourages youth volunteers to mentor younger children, be a model for peers, and be advocates for healthy communities (Kids Korps USA’s Seven Critical Steps). These activities help develop youth's assets and prepare them to become "leaders for life" (Kids Korps USA’s official vision).
One way to ensure that a service project is successful, and youth and recipients are benefiting from the project, is to make the service activities age appropriate. While young children are insightful, and can engage in many service projects, they may not be developmentally ready for activities that their older siblings are doing. Older youth also are not interested in some of the activities that young children enjoy.
Two additional components for delivering positive volunteer experiences are "incentives" and "acknowledgements." As the (Boy) Scouts and other youth organizations have found, children and youth like to advance through development and leadership stages. They feel good when they have accomplished a new task or experienced a new adventure. They also feel good about themselves when others recognize their achievements. Recognition can come in many forms, from a simple smile or handshake to a volunteer party to a leadership award. It says, "You are important. You make a difference."
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