Start at Home Start where it's easiest--at home! You can begin by encouraging the children to do secret favors for their siblings (we called them secret pixies) or to help Grandma and Grandpa with yard work or household chores. That's where my sister-in-law Linda started. She says, "Mom and Dad always took us up to work on a grave of one of our ancestors on Memorial Day. We would clean it up and fix it up and leave flowers. We would always go help our grandparents while we were growing up and now we do that with our children. It totally binds you as a family to take care of each other. It creates quite a love." You can encourage your children to help each other with their chores. Make this into a fun game! And give them lots of opportunities to help Daddy and Mommy. You can then teach and train them that service feels good and makes people happy. Expand to the Community Next, you can expand to the community. Begin with your local community, doing small things, and then build outward. My friend Eileen, who also has four sons, shared with me a service they gave to their neighborhood: "We put all our boys in the back of the truck and went and visited all our neighbors. Then we put together a neighborhood directory, listing all the kids and everything and printed them up. We then all put on our pilgrim hats (it was then Thanksgiving time) and went around and delivered them. It really brought the neighborhood together for years." What a unique service this family did that blessed the families in their own neighborhood. My friend Dana related, "My dad loved to sing and he loved for us to sing. He played the guitar and we'd go sing at nursing homes--much to our embarrassment. But it makes you more compassionate and aware. I've taken my children to go visit the seniors every week and took the baby and they loved it." You can participate in formal community events or do small projects on your own. Involve Extended Family Once you're on a roll, consider expanding your family service to your entire extended family. As you involve grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, the impact on your family will grow. One of my son's treasured pictures is of the family working on a quilt to help with his Eagle project. He was making quilts to go to orphan-headed households in Africa, and his grandma and granddad had come to help. Granddad was eighty-five and had never tied a quilt in his life. But there he was with his headlamp to help his grandson. You could even set up your own "Family Foundation." This doesn't have to be a large, formal foundation in the legal and tax sense. It can be an organization of your extended family to coordinate service activities among all family members. You can pool your fund-raising and maximize the impact of your donated dollars. You can schedule service projects as part of family reunions or holiday get-togethers. Imagine how wonderful it would be to make hundreds of book bags to send out into the world from your extended family! You can have a chairman to organize the entire family in family service. News from each family's service activities can be shared via newsletters or e-mails to inspire other members of the extended family. The possibilities are endless! Incorporating Service into the Family You can incorporate family service into your family in a variety of ways. Any way you do it will be a blessing to your children. Set up family home evening experiences to teach kindness, charity, and compassion. The children will be thrilled to have actual experiences to share and discuss. During these activities, talk about the Savior and connect what you are doing to him and to the gospel. Bear your testimony often! The Spirit will then have an opportunity to witness to your children's hearts the truth of your words. Your testimony can be very brief but heartfelt. These words will touch your children deeply and leave lasting lessons. Finally, make it fun! Play games, dance, sing, create, whistle, and dress up--whatever it takes! Make the entire experience so much fun for the children that it becomes irresistible. Not all projects will be fun--some should be very serious--but wherever possible, have fun along the way. Helpful Points Before you begin, let me share with you some general points to consider as you start a lifetime of family service. Plan well. Nothing can kill a project faster than inadequate planning. Involve the children in the planning as much as possible. They will develop wonderful organizational skills as a result and have great ideas. Make the projects as hands-on as possible. Actions speak louder than words. Children learn by seeing and experiencing. There is a big difference between Mom and Dad springing for the money and Maria doing chores to earn the money and then donating it. Making things and then actually taking them to donate is very different from just having Mom drop them off. Involve family members as much as possible. Even little Suzie who is three can hold a sign or sing. Have the entire family participate in any way they can. Let them do service with you. Don't just talk about it. Then you'll really have the full impact. As parents model this type of behavior, they are beginning a tradition of love and compassion that can be passed on from one generation to the next. Make the experience real. This applies to donating as well. Use pictures and stories to make this experience very real to the family. Build a rhythm of success. To begin with, try simple projects first (they're bound to be successful) and build from there. Follow your children's cues. Do what interests the family and kids. If your children want to do international work, start there. If they want to do environmental work, that's a great place to begin. Get permission. If your family is interested in working on a volunteer project, get permission from the recipient(s) and from city, town, county, church, school, or other officials and/or organizations, if necessary, before you begin a project. They'll be thrilled and can give you helpful information to make your service project more successful. Always call them first! Watch for growth opportunities. Let your children lead! Let them plan. Let them organize. Let them speak. You can even use service projects that are designed to meet the needs of your child (Need to overcome shyness? Need to feel gratitude? Need to work on sharing?) and tailor them to fit! Model good behavior. Talk about how wonderful it feels to make a difference in the world. Let your children see you volunteering and participating. Talk about the work of others and how much you admire them. Be safe. Always be aware of safety issues. Young children need careful supervision. Some activities require safety equipment. Make sure you attend to this important detail with every project. Reinforce the process. Part of the family experience is the conversations that occur before, during, and after the service activity. Be sure to talk about things! Talk about why you're doing this project. Encourage your children to discuss how they feel about the issues involved. After the project is finished, talk about how they feel, what they learned, what contribution was made. Developing charity is a process of becoming. Talking about and reinforcing that process is crucial. Family Service Ideas So, now that you've caught the vision of family service, here are a few service ideas to help get you started. Gardening for the Hungry Identify where in your community there is a need for food. This may be at your local food bank, a senior center, a needy part of town, or a family you know that is struggling. (Also, missionaries always need veggies!) Talk to the organization you choose (or the family) and discuss what types of fruits and vegetables they could use. Plot out a family garden that will not only provide for you, but also have a designated area where you'll grow food for the hungry. Once the garden begins producing, have the family participate in delivering the produce throughout the harvesting season. Charity Garage Sale As a family, decide which charity you will support with this effort. Choose a date and time for your garage sale and begin setting aside items to be sold. You can also invite neighbors to contribute items. Depending on your area, you may want to advertise your garage sale in the newspaper or by distributing flyers. If you'd like, you can contact the charity ahead of time to get some literature to hand out during the sale. The day before the sale, assemble all your items and begin to price them. Don't price too high! Make a big poster to advertise that all proceeds are going to the charity. Create a box with a picture of the charity and label it "Donations." Afterwards, meet as a family and count the money. Convert the cash to a check and send it to the charity with a note describing what your family has done. Thank-You Notes Collect a big pile of thank-you notes and some colorful pens, or, even better, make your own notes. You'll also need address lists and stamps. Bring everything to the table and have family members write thank-you notes to important people in their lives, such as teachers, ward leaders, home teachers, the mailman, the babysitter, etc. Notes can be mailed or hand-delivered. Just make sure they're delivered promptly or they can get lost. Whatever You Do, Just Start I've been struck by the power of one event. Person after person can relate one event from their youth that has impacted their lives into adulthood. So even if you only do something small or even just once to start out, it will bless the lives of your children and initiate or perpetuate a culture inclined to serve one another.
For more great family service ideas, check out 52 Weeks of Fun Family Service by Merrilee Boyack, from which this article is excerpted.
Merrilee Boyack has been speaking at BYU Education Week to standing-room-only audiences for eleven years and is a popular speaker at Time Out for Women events. She is an estate-planning attorney who conducts her part-time practice from her home in Poway, California, where she lives with her husband and four sons. Merrilee is also the author of The Parenting Breakthrough, Strangling Your Husband Is Not an Option, and Toss the Guilt and Catch the Joy.