Ways to make a difference in the GTA this March Break

When kids do their part to get involved with their communities, the benefits go way beyond the people they’re helping. They’re also more likely to get good grades, experience a self-esteem boost and even prioritize civic engagement in the future. But kids may not always see why volunteering is so important, for themselves or their communities.

Luckily, there’s a solution: use March Break as an opportunity to combine fun activities with a lesson on the joys of giving back. Encourage them to participate in activities that allow them to engage with their local community, and they’ll soon learn exciting new things and a little about themselves, too—like how full their hearts can feel when they do something good for others. Here are our best bets for ways to make a difference.

Combine collaboration and innovation—with camp

MakerKids is the perfect organization for kids who are ready to kick-start their journeys as changemakers. The organization, which uses STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to teach kids to innovate and inspires them to make a positive difference in the world, is hosting its annual March Break day camp at the Toronto MakerSpace in Bloor West Village. All week long, kids aged eight to 12 will discover how to be creators, not consumers. They’ll work in teams to solve problems and also have a chance to create their own mind-blowing designs and inventions. The camp advances kids’ skills in communication, leadership and critical thinking—and, best of all, they get to dabble in gaming, coding and robotics.

Create eco-aware kiddos

Show kids how they can help the environment by creating their own drop-off boxes for hard-to-dispose-of items. Let neighbours know that this March Break, you’ll take recyclables like batteries, electronics, light bulbs and other items that can’t go in the regular blue bin. Mark each box clearly so everyone knows which items go in which box. At the end of the week, take the kids on a trip to drop off the boxes at local depots, big box stores or other facilities that will take the items. Make a game of it and see who can collect the most for a prize of their choice. Maybe an afternoon matinee or a bowling bash?

Embrace a new neighbour

Helping newcomers to Canada learn about the events, resources and activities available to them is a great way to help new neighbours feel included in the community—and this is the perfect week to get started. From taking a family of newcomers to a maple syrup festival to bonding over superheroes at ComicCon to simply helping them access services, there are plenty of ways to help.

Take part in the #marchbreakcharitychallenge

Challenge your kids to support their favourite local charity. It’s a great opportunity for them to get creative or learn a new skill while supporting a local cause—and they get a prize at the end! Participants sign up for the Wish and Give March Break Charity Challenge, which allows kids to set their own goal and choose what charity they want to support. Maybe they want to try to read five books? Create a masterpiece? Or learn to make a new recipe? Whatever the goal, they must collect pledges and complete their task by end of March Break. That’s when the charity gets their donation and the kids get their prize. What a great way to wrap up the week!

Ask the Expert: Is volunteering good for my health?

Every day, Jeff D’Silva, chief storyteller for Propellus, the volunteer and non-profit resource centre of Calgary, hears stories of people selflessly serving others. Take Gertie, who is 102 and volunteers her time to read to schoolchildren. Or James, 45, who was born with congenital cerebral malformations and is now devoting his life to volunteering. (He’s already at 5,800 hours and counting.)

People like Gertie and James are passionate about why they do what they do, but don’t expect—or want—recognition. “Volunteering gives people confidence, community and a sense of purpose,” says D’Silva. “And, when you do good things, you feel good.”

Volunteering can enrich every aspect of people’s lives, he says, from reducing social isolation for seniors and helping them feel engaged and connected, to offering new Canadians an opportunity to build networks in their communities. “No matter what you end up doing, it’s a chance to meet people and learn new skills,” he says. “In the end, you get back more than you could ever possibly give.”

Researchers have found plenty of evidence that he’s right. A 2015 study from the University of British Columbia found that doing good deeds could reduce your social anxiety levels, while a report by University of Toronto researcher Dr. Nicole Anderson found that seniors who volunteer are happier and healthier. In Anderson’s report, volunteers had fewer signs of depression, fewer functional limitations and better overall health. They even lived longer!

If you’re not sure what kind of volunteering is right for you, D’Silva says a good way to get started is to think about what is most meaningful for you, and look for opportunities that reflect that. If you’re an avid reader, consider volunteering with a literacy program for newcomers. If you’re a foodie, sign up to prepare or serve lunch or dinner at a local community centre. “It’s less about the role or specific task you’d be doing and more about what you’re most passionate about,” he says. “When you tap into what you love, it leads to more meaningful and lasting connections.”

10 unexpected ways to volunteer this winter

Camara Chambers has been giving back since she was 16, when she volunteered in a local charity shop in the United Kingdom. “I realized then that volunteering isn’t just a chance to make a difference; it also gives you skills and learning opportunities you might not find anywhere else,” says Chambers, who is Executive Director of Volunteer Toronto, a United Way–supported agency. And it’s a fantastic thing for families to do together, she adds, especially once the holidays are over, since the need is greater at other times of the year. Here are 10 ways you and your family can change someone’s life for the better.

1. Supporting seniors: Sometimes families have a harder time finding volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for younger children. Chambers recommends looking into your local Meals on Wheels  or Friendly Visiting services. “Elderly people, especially those living in long-term retirement homes, can feel especially isolated, and spending time with them is a lovely opportunity for everyone involved,” she says. “It’s a nice way for children to meet the people they’re helping.” You can connect directly with long-term care homes in your neighbourhood by checking out the volunteer pages on their websites, or by going to local community sites, such as York Region’s CIVICYork page. Search for “long-term care facility volunteer positions” to learn about opportunities.

2. Kids helping kids: A great way to get teens involved—and give high-school students their requisite hours of volunteer service—is to encourage them to give after-school tutoring a try.

3. Call a shelter: Tight on time but driven to do something? Contact your local shelter and ask them what they need. “In the colder months, shelters are often desperate for socks, warm coats and blankets,” says Chambers. Personal-hygiene kits with toothbrushes and shampoo are almost always in demand, too. You can also visit Warmest Wishes to give the gift of warmth to someone in need.

4. Share a meal: If you enjoy entertaining, why not invite a family that’s new to Canada over for a holiday feast? You can do it independently or through an organization like Share Thanksgiving, which pairs newcomers with Canadian hosts to share a festive evening with new friends and family.

5. Everyone loves books: Free libraries continue to crop up all over the city, and they’re great places to donate your used books. “It’s such a wonderful way to make books available to people who may not have access to them otherwise,” says Chambers.

6. Be their guest: Some of the city’s Syrian refugee women have started up a grassroots “newcomer kitchen” to share their passion for cooking Syrian cuisine with Canadians. “It’s an opportunity to meet some of the country’s newest citizens and to experience their food and culture,” says Chambers. Even Justin Trudeau has dropped by for a newcomer brunch.

7. Build a gingerbread house: Every winter, Habitat for Humanity GTA hosts a gingerbread house-building workshop for kids. Participants pay $50 for a kit, which comes complete with assembled or unassembled house (depending on how ambitious you feel!), icing and plenty of candy. Proceeds fund the organization’s building projects.

8. Pass on your points: Did you know you can donate your Airmiles points to charity? Most people don’t, Chambers says, but it’s a quick and easy way to give back.

9. Out of the Cold: Every winter, many of the city’s churches open their doors to the homeless, offering some respite from the bitter temperatures outside. And there are lots of ways you can help, from simply being on hand to greet people and answer questions to handing out hot drinks. Log on to the Out of the Cold website to find a program near you.

10. Hit the ice: Evergreen Brick Works is a volunteer mecca year-round, but in the winter the organization needs extra help once its skating rink is up and running. You can pitch in lots of ways, from helping out in the skate shop to being a rink ambassador.

If you’d like to find more ways to volunteer with your kids, check out Volunteer Toronto’s site; their Suitable for Families (with Kids under 14) page is routinely updated with non-profit organizations that could use your help. You can also find additional winter volunteer opportunities on the site’s Holiday volunteering page.

How to raise kids who give back

It’s National Volunteer Week! And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of giving back. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and giving back.

1. Lead by example: “Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Director, Employee and Volunteer Engagement at United Way. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” This is something you can do from a young age by both bringing your kids along when you volunteer and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. Bean first started volunteering with her kids when they were six years old. She says this is a good age to get children excited about helping others as they start to explore their own independence. With her little ones, she chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Build on their interests: “Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and helping to give some pets a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, helping a child overseas. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends. When they get a bit older, you can also sign them up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Cubs. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, it’s a great time to get them involved. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you with something connected to that like making the weekly team snack, explains Bean.

3. Say ‘thank you’: One way to keep kids in the giving spirit is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having the event organizer thank them, will help them feel they’re now part of a wider community.

4. Be a gardener: Part of the process of raising kids who give back is planting seeds that help them see the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. This can start at any age. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” she says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding your kids to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. “For example, our son gets $2 pocket money and puts aside $1 each week for ‘penguins and polar bears,’ his choice.”

5. Encourage empathy: Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe, who is also a writer, and the author of the children’s book My New Best Friend, which teaches kids about being a friend to themselves. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.” One way to help to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids.

Looking for an easy way to get your child volunteering? Have your mini philanthropist (aged 10+) tag along with you at this year’s Scotiabank Rat Race! Stay tuned for volunteer opportunities—sign-up begins May 3.

5 tips for teens on getting volunteer-ready

It’s National Volunteer Week! This year, we’ve put together a “cheat sheet” for Ontario high school students who are required to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate. If you’re a parent, we hope you’ll share our tips list with your teen for everything they need to know on getting “volunteer-ready.”

CamaraChambers

Camara Chambers
Director, Community Engagement
Volunteer Toronto

1. Start early: It’s never too early to start thinking about your volunteer service. In Ontario, students can start clocking their community service hours starting right after they finish Grade 8 and all the way up until, and including, Grade 12. It often takes several weeks to secure a volunteer position, so it’s best not to leave it to the last minute, especially if you’re close to graduation. “If you have to squeeze all of those 40 hours into two weeks, you’re going to be setting yourself up for failure,” says Camara Chambers, Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Toronto. “A great time to start volunteering is during the spring when the annual ChangeTheWorld: Youth Volunteering Challenge takes place. Since you can’t volunteer during school hours, many students choose to complete their hours during the summer or even March Break. Volunteering at a number of events is another popular option since it gives young people the chance to split their volunteer hours into smaller chunks of time. “It’s also a great opportunity to try different roles, meet lots of different people and get a behind the scenes look at lots of different events throughout the city,” adds Chambers.

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2. Do your homework: It’s important to find an opportunity that’s a good match for your personality, skills and future career aspirations. Chambers advises all volunteers to narrow their search using the “3 Rs”— reflect, research and reach out. What do you really want to get out of the experience? Maybe you’re focused on getting some valuable experience for your resume. Or perhaps you want to put a particular skill to good use. Are you interested in working with a particular group of people or on a specific issue such as poverty? Or maybe you just need to find a position that fits into your busy schedule and is close to home or school. Knowing what you want will help you narrow your search once you’re ready. It’s also a good idea to talk to your school guidance counsellor to get pre-approval on your position. “Some schools are more flexible than others and will allow you to volunteer just helping your neighbour,” says Chambers. “Others will want you to do it specifically for a non-profit or a charity.” It’s also important to know your rights. You should expect to have the role clearly explained to you and receive some form of training, even if it’s informal. Having a supervisor or adult mentor is another must. Remember that you can’t be paid for your volunteer service but some organizations provide tokens or small honorariums.

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3. Find a role that fits: You’re ready to start your search. The best place to look? Online volunteer databases such as volunteertoronto.ca or yorkinfo.ca that list hundreds of opportunities organized by age and category. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can also contact individual organizations to learn more about any positions that might be available. Talk to your parents and peers for suggestions, or contact your local place of worship or a charity in your neighbourhood.  Don’t forget to factor your personality into the equation. If you’re not comfortable in big groups, choose a role such as one-on-one tutoring. You can even volunteer with your friends at certain fundraising events. Family volunteering opportunities are also available and include delivering meals to seniors. Once you’ve secured your spot, it’s not unusual to complete a brief in-person or phone interview to learn more about the position. Some roles may even require that you attend an information session or day of training.

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4. Put your best foot forward: Although you can’t be paid for your volunteer service, treat this opportunity as a valuable learning experience for the future. “It’s really important to leave a good impression. That means turning up on time, asking lots of questions when you don’t understand your responsibilities and communicating honestly especially if you’re not finding the job enjoyable,”says Chambers. “These people will likely be your reference in the future.” She adds: “If you make a really good impression, your volunteer supervisor will probably introduce you to other people, give you other opportunities or give you more of a leadership role.” And finally, don’t forget to say “thank you” once you’ve completed your position.
CamaraChambers

5. Become a better citizen (and have fun doing it!): Completing your mandatory 40 hours of volunteer service is about much more than just clocking time. If you want to get the most out of your experience, be prepared to learn. Engage with your peers and supervisor to learn more about the issues facing the organization—and the sector—where you’ve selected your position. When you’re done, stay in touch with any friends or contacts you’ve made along the way. “Volunteering is a fantastic way to try new experiences, meet new people and make new friends,” says Chambers. Maybe you’ll even find something you want to stick with over the long-term.”

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