The invitations for the ballet-themed birthday party had scalloped edges, a decorative ribbon and a unique message: In lieu of gifts, the birthday girl requests that donations be made to the scholarship program at her ballet studio.
Paula Fernandez de los Muros worked with her daughter Paloma to turn her 6th birthday fete into a way to help others.
"I just want her to realize there are a lot of people in this world that need help,'' Fernandez de los Muros said.
Moms and dads often struggle with how to best instill compassion in their children and the importance of giving back. That's especially true for parents of elementary and middle school kids, for whom volunteering opportunities aren't as apparent.
But chances to teach by doing abound in South Florida, experts say. It may take a little creativity and perseverance to find the best opportunity for your family.
Expose kids to the idea of giving by getting them involved in small projects around the home, said Dr. Gary Lancelotta, coordinator of Pediatric Psychology for Baptist Health South Florida.
Have them clean out their closet once a year and give their clothes and old DVDs to children at an area hospital, he suggested. Or have your child accompany you while you pick up the mail for a neighbor who is sick, or out of town.
Parents can also do what Fernandez de los Muros did -- encourage a child to dedicate a birthday party to raising funds for those in need.
"I don't think it's ever too early to know that you are doing something for other people and are getting nothing in return except that you made that person's day,'' Lancelota said.
Kids naturally have an instinct to help, said Kathy Saulitis, senior director of Kids Care Clubs, a project of the national Points of Light Institute, which encourages volunteerism.
"Think about babies: They want to share their food with you. If somebody gets hurt, they cry, too,'' she said. Though kids won't be able to understand larger issues like poverty until elementary school, planting the idea about the importance of giving is important.
For parents who want to start their own project, at home or at school, the Points of Light Institute lists age-appropriate ideas on its website. For example, starting a litter patrol at school lunchtime is a good way to get elementary-age students engaged. Having them organize a schoolwide recycling program is beyond their ability.
Here's what happened when a group of fifth-graders at St. Philip's Episcopal School in Coral Gables got together: The boys were interested in running for Student Council, but there weren't enough positions available for all of them. So one mom suggest they form a club and do a volunteer project.
The 10 kids, who named their group the Boys With a Plan, voted to raise money for St. Alban's Child Enrichment Center in Coconut Grove, a Head Start preschool program. They collected goods for a garage sale and sold Valentine's Day bouquets at school -- raising a
total of $1,300. The boys then also went to St. Alban's to play with the students.
"I think they learned that they can make a difference, and that they can relate to these children that don't have the same advantages in life that they do,'' said Lucy Atherton, whose son Alec was involved. "It was a great lesson for them to learn. It wasn't just like asking to give pocket money to some unknown cause.''
Hands on Miami and Volunteer Broward offer one-day volunteer jobs for the whole family. Visit their websites and search under the term family-friendly.'' A one-day event may spark interest in a longer-term commitment.
Many agencies post age limits for kids accompanied by an adult. Bringing children younger than 6, Hands on Miami CEO Pat Morris says, means parents will likely spend more time chasing after their kids than actively participating.
CONSIDER CHILD'S INTERESTS
That's how 13-year-old Hannah Hobbs of Parkland got hooked on volunteering. When she needed to fulfill 20 hours of community service for an honor society at her middle school, Hannah looked for an opportunity to work with horses.
She found Tomorrow's Rainbow, a Coconut Creek center that uses miniature horses to help kids who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Once a week, Hannah rakes the stalls and grooms the horses. She fulfilled her requirement in early May, but has continued her work.
She even used her birthday money to buy the horses a new halter and lead rope, and handed an envelope to Executive Director Abby Mosher with $68 in singles and change and note that said "from Hannah and her sister from the lemonade stand for the horses.''
I like to be around the horses,'' said Hannah, whose favorite is a lively 2-year-old named Precious. "And I get to help with the program.''
DON'T FORCE IT
Atherton, whose eldest son was a member of Boys with a Plan, also volunteers with her family at a homeless shelter. Once a month, their church group throws a birthday party -- with pizza and games -- for the kids there. Her 11-year-old loves it. Her 8-year-old isn't interested yet.
"He wants to eat the pizza first, rather than give it out,'' Atherton said.
WHERE KIDS CAN HELP
- Hands on Miami, and Volunteer Broward, offer family volunteering projects.
- Best Buddies, 305-374-2233. The program that pairs people with intellectual disabilities with friends has chapters in one Broward and 18 Miami-Dade middle schools. Young volunteers can also participate in the annual Best Buddies Day in March.
- Camillus House, 305-374-1065, ext. 438. Kids 12 and up can serve meals to the homeless. Kids under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. On Thanksgiving, younger kids can volunteer with their families.
- Miami Rescue Mission, 305-571-2227. Kids 2 and older can participate with their parents during a children's reading hour. Kids 14 and older can serve as summer camp counselors and participate in other activities.
- Broward Meals on Wheels, 954-731-8770, ext. 6936. Kids of all ages can help parents visit and shop for groceries for a homebound senior.
- Tomorrow's Rainbow, 954-978-2390. Kids 14 and older can clean the stalls and groom miniature horses that are used to help grieving kids. Age exceptions can be made when a family volunteers together.
- Habitat for Humanity, 305-634-3628. Kids 14 and up can volunteer in Habitatés store, which sells home furnishings and building materials, or pitch in on Habitatés landscaping days.
- Humane Society of Broward County, 954-266-6814, is now available for birthday parties. In lieu of gifts for the birthday child, guetes bring gifts from the shelter's wish list for the animals, or make a donation in the birthday child's name. Prices for the party start at $300 for 20 kids. Call 954-266-6848 for more information. For other volunteer opportunities, adults can participate in the pet foster care program, and bring young puppies and kittens home, where kids can help care for them. There is also a teen volunteer program for kids 14 and up, though it has an extensive waiting list.
- Humane Society of Dade County, 305-749-1820. Adults can volunteer for the pet foster care program, and bring young puppies and kittens into family home, where kids can help care for them. Volunteers in the shelter must be at least 16.
- Broward Partnership for the Homeless, 954-832-7037. Kids 12 and older, accompanied by an adult, can assist staff by caring for young children while their parents are in classes or meetings. Kids 16 and older can participate in other activities, accompanied by an adult. Kids of all ages can take part in food and goods drives.
- Kids Care Clubs, are formed in schools and by community organizations to get kids age 5 to 13 involved in volunteering. Each month, young club members get information on a new issue and how to affect it. The site has information on how to start one. It's sponsored by the National Points of Light Institute. The L.A. Lee YMCA in Fort Lauderdale has one.
- Dosomething.org has loads of resources for teenagers interested in volunteer work, including a database, searchable by Zip code, of organizations that need help.