Giving Back | Holidays

Doing Good: Create a Sustainable Volunteer Opportunity With Your Family

Sammy Smith, Jamie Smith, Bente Fernandi and Natalie Fernandi mixing pancake batter.
Sammy and Jamie Smith, and Bente and Natalie Fernandi, mixing pancake batter.

At FamilyWorks, where I work as a Volunteer Coordinator, I have been getting lots of questions like:

"Can I volunteer with my kids at the food bank?"

"Do you have any volunteer opportunities for my family to participate in together?"

I tell people their kids have to be 16 years or older to volunteer at our food bank. It’s a busy place, with heavy items constantly being moved around, and kids cannot really be supervised.

Because of the numerous requests like these, particularly during the holidays, we are working on developing a program for FamilyWorks that makes it possible for families with young children to volunteer together doing different things.

And, as the holidays hurtle toward us, I find myself in the usual quandary of trying to figure out how to avoid getting consumed by consumerism and at the same time, create ways for my family to focus on giving rather than receiving. Sometimes the anxiety sets in and I find myself paralyzed, overwhelmed by Internet research and the obligation to make the time to figure it all out.

In the back of my mind I am keenly aware that it is easy to want to assuage my guilt at not doing “enough” for others by participating in a one-time volunteer act. I know that volunteering once, while it helps others in that moment, does nothing for their long-term comfort. I wrote a blog post recently on philanthropic colonialism that articulated some of my concerns.

As the years go by, though, I find that my family and I are able to do small things to create a sustainable culture of giving. We have created daily family activities and experiences for each night of Hanukkah instead of making it all about giving presents each night. And this year the kids are going to donate some of their savings to their favorite charities (Wolf Haven, you just got lucky!). When my youngest is a little older, I’d like for us to find a regular opportunity to volunteer in our community. These actions are not much, but they are a start.

Recently I heard about Seattleite Barb Smith's effort to create a regular volunteering opportunity for her family and I thought, OK, this is meaningful and totally doable.

Smith is a part-time grant writer for Solid Ground, which, by coincidence, owns the building that FamilyWorks is in, and she is also co-owner of Space to Create, an art studio in Ballard. Smith had been wondering how she and her family could volunteer together on a regular basis as opposed to only once a year during the holidays. She, as I have been, wondered how to make these efforts more sustainable.

Smith and her husband Kip and their two daughters Sammy, 12, and Jamie, 15, started out by volunteering one Thanksgiving Day at Blaine Center, a men’s shelter run by Compass Housing Alliance.

This positive experience helped the family realize that they wanted to do something more regularly, and with a few friends, the Smiths started organizing monthly breakfasts for the Pioneer Square Men's Program at Compass House.

A petite woman with cascading blond hair and an amazing positive presence, Smith speaks modestly but with deep conviction and passion about the project she helped to start. She emphasizes that even though she was the original impetus behind the idea, it was really the community that made it so successful. The next step is to replicate this effort within schools, churches, sports teams, PEPS, and other groups, she says.

"I need this to be a project where everyone in the community owns it. I don't want credit for this or to be in the limelight because it is the community that keeps it going," she explained.

The Smiths are as busy as any other family with school-aged kids, dealing with school, jobs and extra-curricular activities. To avoid managing it all on her own, Barb Smith wanted to find a way to make it easy for other people to participate in her project. She found, as I have at FamilyWorks, that families really want to be able to volunteer together.

Smith began using SignUp Genius, an online scheduling tool that makes it possible for families to sign up for the date they want to volunteer and the ingredients they want to donate. They can commit to something as simple as providing orange juice, or the egg dish, or they can go all out and show up to serve the breakfast. They can also donate money to the shelter. In this way, there are several opportunities to give, and it makes it easy to pick and choose what makes the most sense given people’s time limitations.

“Kids can [do the] shopping and cooking [of] breakfast items. They can help prepare and serve breakfast the morning of the breakfast,” Smith said. She recommends kids who want to work at the actual breakfast be 12 and older but leaves it up to the family to decide if younger children would have a positive experience.

Only two families need to be present each month to serve breakfast, but behind the scenes, 5–10 families are needed to donate food items. The time commitment is minimal: 2–3 hours per month for each breakfast.

This opportunity is great because it creates a way for families to actually experience interacting with Compass House residents, who then become real to the volunteers, instead of being invisible beneficiaries.

Smith herself has only participated on site three times this year — she wanted to make room for other interested families. But she spends time making sure the breakfasts are fully staffed and that there is enough food on hand.

"Being in the community in your own city is very impactful, as opposed to just sending money," Smith said. "People want the experience of helping these people directly."

If you are interested in participating contact Barb Smith at 206-595-3474 or email her at

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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