Volunteering is important to our family. As a parent, I see it as a way of nurturing those virtues and skills that can be hard to validate in our often achievement-driven culture. Our family’s bank of time is no different than that of the average family, with the competing demands of work, school and extra-curricular activities. However, in deciding our priorities, we claim volunteerism as non-negotiable. It is a choice that we make and a priority that I defend.

My family’s volunteer commitments are varied and reflect ways that we as a family can give of our time, talent and treasures. Once a month, as part of an organized group, we serve food to our island homeless and/or needy population. Each week, we visit a local seniors’ residential facility. Every September, my children help me organize our local Terry Fox Run, and on the July 1st Canada Day long weekend, we host a lemonade stand and bake sale to raise money for a local charity.

We have been volunteering for years now, ever since my oldest child, now 11, was a six-month-old baby. All this may sound exemplary, but it is not without its challenges and battles. Our volunteer times are peppered with grievances like, “I’m bored” and “Can we go home now?” punctuated with irritating pinches, arm pulls and kicks to my ankles. Some days when we all leave feeling grumpy, I wonder what benefits have been derived from the experience or what lessons have been learned, if any.

As with any endeavour that persists past the novelty stage, things can start to feel stale. I hope that one day my children will appreciate the intrinsic gifts of volunteerism. For now however, it can feel like a mechanical and rote exercise. I often think of the movie “UP” and, in particular, the very monotone and impassive way that Russell reads to Carl Fredricksen from his wilderness explorer handbook: “Good afternoon my name is Russell and I am a wilderness explorer in tribe 54 Sweatlodge 12 are you in need of any assistance today sir?” Sometimes it feels like we are all just inexpressively (and ungrammatically) reading out of the “Volunteering How-To” handbook.

I want to give my family meaningful opportunities that help them develop kindness, generosity, patience and understanding. For any learner, especially the younger ones, “meaningful” usually equals “relevant.” This is the challenge when teaching the value of volunteering to children who are at an egocentric stage of development. In our experience, most of the people we volunteer with are ones that my children would not normally encounter on a regular basis. They look different and act different and this can be uncomfortable. It can be hard for my children to connect with a sense of “sameness.” As a result, the disengagement occurs. We talk about the impact that they make, but at their level of life experience, it is hard to know whether they grasp the value that is very qualitative in nature. I wonder how we can overcome our feelings of being “different” so we can connect with a deeper sense of unity and humanity that brings with it true empathy and compassion?

I recently had an ah-ha moment. When our yearly lemonade stand and bake sale rolled around, the children decided they wanted to raise money for the local Special Olympics Association. We spent a lot of time talking about people with intellectual disabilities and how important it was for them to have a chance to embrace their abilities and experience success. Before our event, we applied a fresh coat of paint to our lemonade stand and planned our menu, which offered not only novel flavours of lemonade but also a selection of decadent baked goods. I sent out an advance email invite to friends and family to generate a steady stream of customers. Though the day threatened rain, the sun shone and in two hours, the children raised $315.61.

The local Special Olympics Association was thrilled and invited us to present the money at their weekly Bocce game in the park. We agreed but once there and confronted with “the fear of difference,” my children instantly took to my side. Just prying them loose for a photograph with the team was like peeling paint with a scraper.

But then something changed. The Bocce coach invited us to play a game with them. We had never played before so we came with the disadvantage of not knowing the game and its rules. It took a little bit of prodding, but as my children overcame their insecurities, they started to have fun. More than fun, they started to care. I delighted in hearing them cheer for their teammates by name. My two younger girls fetched balls like eager puppies. I watched as my son, only nine years old, escorted players to their throw, gently guiding them to and from the court. Most surprising was seeing my children relinquish their need to be first and instead deferring their turn to others.

What had happened to make this encounter suddenly relevant and meaningful? The difference was between talking about people with intellectual disabilities versus being with them. And they had fun laughing and learning together. The sense of “us” and “them” had dissolved into a communion defined by mutual trust and vulnerability.

Philosopher Jean Vanier believed that when serving others, it is not enough to understand, care for and reveal to them their value. We also need to celebrate life with them and empower them to do for themselves and discover their own meaning and purpose. To serve deeply reflects an inclusion and belonging defined by a reciprocal appreciation that both sides are receiving and being received. In manifesting the joy of simply being and doing with them, our new friends received the love and care of my children who saw them with intimacy or “in to me see.” In return, my children received the gift of their emotions, born out of a sense of purposefulness and acceptance.

After that day, I began to think about how we could make our weekly visits to the seniors’ residential care facility more meaningful. For a long time, our show involved a piano recital followed by story time with our favourite kid-friendly and, as it turns out, senior-friendly books such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Pete the Cat, and stories/poems by Beatrix Potter and Shel Silverstein. It was enjoyable enough for the seniors who always delighted in seeing the children, but I must admit that even I had grown bored of our routine. We were “doing to” instead of “doing with” which felt somewhat hierarchical and disconnected. How could I recreate the same feelings we discovered that afternoon at the Bocce field and bring my children out of their heads and into their hearts?

Just like in the movie “UP,” balloons were the catalyst we needed to take our experience to new heights. All we did was toss and catch balloons together and in doing so, age, missing teeth and wheelchairs became irrelevant. It was an activity that felt comfortable with or without words as we focused on the activity. We challenged ourselves to see how many we could keep in the air all at once, while always forgiving each other when we missed. Like magic, once again, we had tapped into the virtue of humanity and connected to something deeper through our shared joyfulness. I have since tried to think of other games to play but we always come back to balloons because it is so much fun and no one seems to have yet grown tired of the game. I realize now that it’s not so much what we do together, but how we do it together.

I look forward to living out this new view of volunteering with my children. As they get older, I believe that this type of heart work will help my children fulfill their need for “being with” and “being like” in pro-social ways that enhance positive mental health and encourage tolerance and compassion. For now, however, I love the fact that volunteering can be fun and synonymous with play, all the while fostering unity and nursing the seeds of character.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and mom of four children. She is a trained Virtues Project Facilitator and also works for Volunteer and Community Resources on Salt Spring Island.