Friday, April 10, 2009

All in the Family

People of all shapes, sizes, skills and personalities do volunteer work, every day, all around the country, in each community, big or small. Sometimes we hear of their efforts. Usually we do not. Doing something for someone else is a critical component of building a strong community. Letting someone help in a project is a nuance of that component.

And then there are our kids.

In this new, technological world, where community is the one viewed through computer screens, how do we know if our kids are really getting a sense of how important it can be to reach out to someone in need - and beyond themselves?

Tamara Lee Poelstra, community activist in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is a parent who works on instilling in her children the same sense of giving back to community that her parents instilled in her. "As a teen, I never realized what my parents were doing," she says. "Through the lens of experience, I realize that they were teaching me to get out of my head and into the world."

She tells the story (which I read from her speech notes) of the time that her father brought her one Saturday morning to help clean, organize and paint the home of an older woman who needed the help:

I remember this day because of how hard I worked. I remember this day because of Mrs. Langly's stale ginger snaps and tears. I remember this day because it was the day I saw my father in a new light. He volunteered in our community. I did know that when occasionally my father would be late coming home or gone for a weekend day, Mom would say he was helping someone. But on this day I understood what he actually did. He was a contractor by trade but not everyone who needed his services could afford to pay him. So on his free time, he gave of himself. After looking into the sweet tear-filled blue eyes of Mrs. Langly, I understood why he did it.

And then there is her father's impression of what happened that day:

My Saturday at Mrs. Langly's house was a punishment for missing curfew. However, my dad doesn't remember it that way. He remembers it as the day we painted a whole house together and helped a sick, lonely old lady, and how proud he was of me.

So now, with her own children, she repeats the teaching moments. Sometimes her children create the opportunities for her (just like she created this moment for her dad by missing curfew way back when). Complaints will signal to Tamara that they are "too much in their head, and we're out volunteering - walking dogs at the humane society" or some such thing.

Tamara remembers one particular one time when she brought her daughters to a soup kitchen. They weren't all warm and fuzzy about going yet they each contributed in a positive way. And then there is the gift in the outreach. Tamara remembers hearing a lot of laughing in the corner that day. She looked over, and there was her daughter, teaching some of the homeless kids how to play the card game Speed. They all were having a blast. "It changed the feeling in the entire room," she says. It was a reminder of why getting her kids up and out and helping others was worth the effort - for all involved. "It's an alternate way of dealing with children that doesn't involve spanking or just letting live with their own consequences," she says.

And it's a way of ensuring that the legacy of volunteerism lives on. Like father, like daughter, and daughters again.

1 comment:

Tamara Lee Poelstra said...

It is interesting that my girls are not resentful to force volunteering. By the time, their duty is finished they have moved beyond the petty issue that landed us there and are focusing on what they are doing. Both my daughters volunteer by choice now. They really inspire me.