Volunteering With Your Grandchildren

Teach them the lesson of a lifetime: compassion for others

By Jill Nawrocki

There they were one chilly April morning in a frenzied Downingtown, Pa., parking lot. Kyle, 7, and Nicole, 10, with their Pop Pop, Tony Morris, 65. As a team, they steered eager runners into lines and registered them for the big race that day.

For the kids, it was mostly about having a good time. “[Pop Pop and I] really love spending time together. He always makes things fun,” says Kyle.

But, this wasn’t just any race, and Pop Pop Tony had more than fun in mind. His crew was there to volunteer together at the charity run held to raise funds and awareness for Mommy’s Light, a Lionville, Pa.-based nonprofit that assists kids who’ve lost their mothers. Tony wanted to share the cause with his grandkids, and show them how effortless it can be for them to help their community.

“They are like sponges. They absorb everything,” says Tony. “If Kyle and Nicole get to see me involved, I’m sure they’ll be volunteering later in life, too.”

When grandparents volunteer with their grandkids in tow, the “rewards are double,” says Tracey Oberholtzer, Mommy’s Light volunteer coordinator. It’s a way to share the experience of giving back to society, she says, while spending time together and forging a closer relationship.

These days, Tony’s not the only one who’s figured out how to teach a few lessons on the power of community service couched in seemingly carefree weekend adventures. The idea of grandparents volunteering in tandem with grandkids is rapidly catching fire. Here, a few examples of multigenerational volunteer opportunities you can share with grandchildren at home in the U.S. and abroad.

Home Edition

Seattle-based Generations Touring Company offers volunteer vacations to grandparents who want to collaborate with grandchildren to make a positive impact, but prefer to keep the do-gooder projects close to the hearth.

"You've got two ends of the age spectrum here, which makes it a challenge. The things a 12-year-old can do differ from the things a grandparent can do," says Tom Easthope, GTC founder, who takes pride in matching the travelers' skill sets to volunteer projects at the appropriate level.

Just this year, GTC created Renew, Rebuild and Reconnect, a service-oriented tour of New Orleans, in response to what Tom saw as a growing need for multigenerational families to do more than just go and see places together. "We are hitting the issue straight," he says. "People in New Orleans are still in need."

This six-day insider view of America’s Big Easy provides fodder for conversations on real-life hardships that cut right through age barriers. As a precursor to rolling up their sleeves, volunteers take a tour of the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard’s Parish — two areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — to get a macro view of the lasting devastation the storm left in its wake.

For all ages, it’s an eye-opening reality check, says Tom. Post-Katrina, racial tensions and economic disparities have become glaringly apparent in the city known historically for its rich culture and zesty Cajun fare.

Post-tour, volunteers take to the streets collecting debris, cooking meals for Habitat for Humanity volunteers rebuilding homes, and consoling displaced residents face to face. "The older generations want to teach a life lesson or have a way to make an impression on younger grandchildren," says Tom. "Not only to show them to do things right, but also, to do the right thing."

GTC is now planning a voluntourism vacation for grandparents and grandchildren that will revolve around the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 25-May 4).

Jet-Setter Model

For globe-trotter grandparents looking to share an international service experience with younger generations, Belmont, Vt.-based Volunteers for Peace offers service projects on a wider geographic scale. Since VFP’s 1982 inception, grandparents and their grandkids have been experiencing the world together while working on community-based projects.

“One goal of these projects is to help the volunteers learn to bond, because many families are not that close,” says Amy Bannon, outgoing placement manager for VFP. “Working side by side provides a great way for families to get to know each other."

At family camps, volunteers spend two to three weeks living and volunteering in foreign cultures. Projects for summer 2007 include helping out local authorities in the village of Marjamaa, in Estonia, by mowing grass, cutting bushes, painting, and doing other odd jobs at the Community House for three to five hours daily (Perk: Hit up the Estonian sauna after-hours). This project, aimed at families with kids ages 4-13, allows grandparents and their grandkids to partner with local area residents and, instead of blowing dust in the face of traditional cultures, completely immerse themselves in the ceremonies, dances, and marketplace heckling.

Another option, for families with grandkids ages 5-10, is set in Gallipoli, the Puglia region of Southern Italy along the Ionian Sea. Here, volunteers will build bird watching shelters and care for the vegetation of this lush natural protected reserve. (Caveat: be prepared to sleep in big, collective tents). VFP projects challenge grandparents and their grandkids to venture beyond their comfort zones… together.

As more Baby Boomers like you — raised on 60s activism and John Lennon’s “give peace a chance” lyrics — achieve grandparent status, the desire to share that world view with grandkids is a given… and may even allow you to replay a bit of those young and feverish activist days. After all, it’s the 76-million-strong Boomer set that believed in changing the world, and did. Why not show the grandkids what your post-60s energetic self is made of?

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