Field Trip: Helping Hands

New Year’s Resolution: Volunteer more with your kids. Here’s how.



Somewhere in the world, there are probably two cherubic, selfless children who clap their hands with sincere glee when their mother tells them that she has signed them up for a volunteer shift at the local food bank.

Those are not my children.

My children are more wont to extract a promise of ice cream afterwards before they will consent to head out on another volunteering mission with me.

And yet I keep doggedly signing us up, for so many reasons. Because compared to so, so much of the world they have so, so much, and I want them to understand that it isn’t that way for everyone. Because they are young and strong and able-bodied and can give help to those in need. Because it’s something we can do together as a family that doesn’t cost a thing. Because it’s fun (Really, kids, I promise! It is!) Because it matters, because we care.

Particularly around the holiday season, when excess is everywhere, volunteering just feels like a promise that needs to be kept.

Many charitable organizations have projects that you can do together as a family from home (check out for some great suggestions) but we started our kids out at the age of 4 at the Children’s Book Bank, a lovely local organization that cleans up donated, gently loved books and redistributes them to kids who may not otherwise have a lot of books at their homes. They have regular family volunteer sessions on Saturday mornings, and it’s a perfect choice for younger kids since it involves spray bottles, tape and books, some of their favorite things.

Every table gets a big box of donated books (organizers make an effort to match donations with the age levels of volunteers, so your kids will likely find some of their own favorites in the mix) and you get to work, disinfecting board books that may have been chewed on, taping up torn pages and covering up stray marks with strategically placed white stickers.

Sessions only last about an hour and a half or so and kids get to choose a small prize at the end — they also get a passport stamped, which can be redeemed for a free treat at a local ice cream parlor after four or five visits.

When my twins turned 5, we went to a citywide cleanup event at Hoyt Arboretum — here, I was banking on how genuinely grateful my whole family is for Portland’s awesome parks system (Vote Knope!), plus that my kids always love being outside. We were handed nifty t-shirts and water bottles, plus gardening gloves, rakes and pruning shears and pointed toward a section of trail that was being choked by ivy. The kids raked dutifully for about 45 minutes, then started playing with another volunteering family’s children, while I kept at it for another hour or so. One of the best parts about this experience was that hikers on the trail kept thanking us for our work and our time. Volunteering can sometimes feel a little removed from those you’re helping, but not in this case, and I thought that helped the kids understand why we’d turned out that day.

At 6, kids are old enough to start volunteering at the Oregon Food Bank, which provides food to pantries all over Oregon and southwest Washington, and has a constant need for volunteers. They’ve got options in their outdoor garden, but we’ve always gravitated toward the food sort and repack center, where the thousands of pounds of donated bulk food gets sorted into manageable portions that will work on food pantry shelves. We’ve sorted apples, potatoes, rice, bags of pasta, and the ever-popular grab bag from the letter carriers’ food drive. (Side note: Do not put leftover marshmallows into the plastic bag that the mailman leaves at your door. Please. My kids WILL try to rip open the bag and eat them, and be mad when I stop them.) It’s hard work — scoop, label, seal, repeat — and just when you get to the bottom of your giant bin and look up in triumph, they’re already wheeling over another completely full one.

Everyone is asked to wear plastic gloves, hairnets and aprons, which makes for some pretty great pictures. There’s always classic rock playing in the background, which can make for good sing-a-longs, and usually a good handful of other kids on hand to volunteer. Best of all, at the end, Food Bank employees break it down for everyone on a big chalkboard, figuring out precisely how many pounds of food were packed during a day’s shift, how many pounds each person contributed, on average, and how many meals that will provide. It’s really meaningful for a kid to realize that he or she is personally responsible for 30 meals for someone in need — my kids always remember to bring along a dollar or two from their allowance jar to go into the donations bin at the end of a shift, so they can give back just a little bit more.

And yes, we always do stop for ice cream on our way home.

Julia Silverman

Julia Silverman

Julia is a former Associated Press Oregon education and politics reporter, who has also worked as a web editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She likes reading, cooking, hiking, swimming, and being left alone at the end of the day to watch some pretty bad TV. Her twins, Ben and Elly, like making trouble.
Julia Silverman

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