Miss Abney sits hunched over in her wheelchair falling asleep as the fifth grade boys approach her in the circle and begin tossing a balloon and speaking to her. Soon she looks up bright eyed and bats it back with gusto, as the aide explains that Miss Abney is 100 and taught Sunday School for years. Next to her is Miss Rachel sleeping in her chair, Kate takes her hand while she and the other upper elementary girls begin to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Soon the whole circle of residents is humming or singing along with the children as they toss balloons with the saints suffering from Alzheimer’s. Glimpses of God’s kingdom are shining through so brightly at Grace Day Camp.
So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet….I give you a new commandment, that you love one another (John 13:14, 34).
Modeling and practicing are two primary sources for caring values according to Peter Benson. “It is rooted in the experience of being with people who choose to respond to human need with acts of caring and compassion…practice is the doing of caring. Service should be a mainstay of developmental experience.” (From Growing Compassionate Kids by Jan Johnson)
Last Sunday, Reuben (sixth grade) approached me with his big smile and said, “Yesterday I went to the Food Bank with some of my friends and we packed over 100 boxes and 1200 meals.” He was excited to tell me of his joy in serving others. Some neighborhood families had chosen to practice together and he was modeling God’s love and drawing on years of experiences at FPC Dallas and with his parents. How do we make space for modeling and practice?
Tips and Learnings
- Children enjoy helping others and feel valued when they help.
- Children will do repetitive activities joyfully.
- Plan to have information about the program and mission of the agency presented and give children an opportunity to ask questions.
- Provide hands-on doing and relationship building.
- Don’t take “no” for an answer when agencies say young children can’t volunteer. Show them how it could work.
- Plan intergenerational opportunities.
- Volunteer at a variety of mission agencies; repeat some.
- Volunteer for two to three hours, perhaps at more than one site.
- Partner older and younger children in teams.
- Engage youth assistants and mentors.
- Mix work and play.
Where to Volunteer?
Each community has a variety of mission and service agencies in similar categories where volunteers are needed, but sometimes the agencies have not had experience with children. If you take the time to build a relationship with the volunteer coordinator or leader, you can usually suggest ways children of all ages can volunteer by explaining how children will count to 30 over and over. They can put cans in grocery sacks while talking about what meals could be made with the contents, toss balloons back and forth to residents with Alzheimer’s, or pick long beans while identifying God’s creeping creatures. Here are some other possibilities:
- Food pantry (packing or sorting food, measuring rice and beans)
- Retirement/Care Facilities (visits, Bingo, art, vocations, music)
- Family shelter (art, games or making sandwiches)
- Children’s homes (games, service side by side with residents)
- Childcare or school for low income or homeless children (reading, art, play)
- Community garden or gleaning organization (picking or planting)
- Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (hygiene or clean up kits)
- Homeless shelter (summer survival kits, cookies)
Each context is different so it is important to think about your children, families, resources, and community needs. Don’t try to do too much at once. If you can find at least one family who is passionate about mission, the enthusiasm will spread and you will discover leaders. At FPC Dallas, the variety of mission opportunities designed for children and their families are an integral part of faith life alongside worship, community, and education. We offer several one day summer elementary Marvelous Mission Opportunities, a week-long upper elementary full day camp at a retirement center, a sixth grade VBS Mission week, a four-day Family Mission Trip away from Dallas, and Little Stewpot Stewards summer family program for young children. These did not all start at the same time and do not include the same children. I am happy to share what details I have with anyone who wants the information—just as others have generously shared with me over the years.
In conclusion, “service is more likely to stick when it’s not an event but a process” explains Kara Powell in The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. She urges us to frame the experience, reflect while serving, debrief by identifying change, and strive for ongoing transformation as we connect experience, faith, and everyday life. As we plan and lead, may we remember that we are helping children understand they are God’s hands and feet in this world and we will see glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth.
Miatta Wilson is a Certified Christian Educator, Ruling Elder, and Director of Children’s Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. She is passionate about mission with children. You can contact her at email@example.com