In March, a week before the family was set to travel to Ecuador, Carley Moore, 16, approached her father, Brent Moore, with a serious problem: Minga Lodge, their resort in the Amazonian rainforest, wouldn't have Internet. They couldn't even buy a hotspot. How would the Toronto family cope?
After explaining that he was sure the cabins would have access to a satellite phone for emergencies, the resourceful – and hopeful – teen returned with a price list for the gadget.
As it turned out, going Internet-free would bring the family closer together. A week later, father, daughter and mother, Sara Plant, landed in Ecuador and drove for eight hours before hopping on a boat with four other families to reach their final destination, the Upper Napo River near the Mondana community, just two hours from the town of Coca.
They were taking a volunteer vacation, offered by We Charity, where they would spend four or five hours a day together helping to build a bathroom for a new village school in Bellavista.
"After dinner we would sit around and chat like we were old friends," Mr. Moore says now of the other families, most of whom had children as well. "No one was rushing off to watch TV. We talked about the big things in life – and the kids stayed and talked, too."
Whether moving rocks in South America, selling lemonade and cookies to raise money for cancer research or doling out food in a soup kitchen, there are hundreds of ways families can pitch in and volunteer together. Helping out has numerous short– and long-term emotional and community benefits. Not only do family volunteer opportunities give parents, grandparents and children a way to bond over a common interest, children who experience volunteering as part of growing up are much more likely to volunteer as an adult, according to Volunteer Canada.
Not a bad thing, considering there's a growing body of evidence indicating that volunteer work can help lead to a healthier and more fulfilled life.
Shelley Page, author of The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children who Care and Contribute, has seen these upsides play out in her own life with her two teenaged children, but maintains that many parents underestimate how significant lessons attributed to volunteering can be. Instead, parents race their offspring from soccer to ballet and piano lessons, hoping to create a well-rounded child.
"But when you talk to parents about what qualities they'd like them to have as human beings, they almost always say kindness and compassion," she says. "And while those other sport and music activities are good for kids, kindness and compassion don't necessarily come from them."
Volunteering as a family, however, shows children that they have the power to have a positive impact on the world – even if it's with mom's or dad's help for now.
Mr. Moore says it's not just the children who benefit, though. Although the trip to Ecuador was originally meant to give his daughter, who is involved in her school's service leadership council, a chance to get some service experience abroad, he and his wife came home changed.
They realized that simply writing a cheque to charities isn't enough. Despite busy careers in the financial services industry, they wanted to get involved and they're now even rearranging their work schedules to make it happen. Mr. Moore is changing jobs as a chief compliance officer and moving to a new company, but on one condition.
"They wanted me to start in early October, and I said, 'That's fine, but I can't be there on Oct. 19 because I'm volunteering at We Day,'" he says of the annual Toronto youth empowerment event.
Families don't have to travel to a far-flung location to volunteer together. Lisa Dalrymple, a children's writer in Fergus, Ont., has been making a difference with her three children since the littlest one was only two. Since then, she and her husband, Marc LaBerge, have helped the children make cookies and sell lemonade for causes ranging from cancer research to helping girls get an education through the Malala Fund and buying blankets for Creation of Hope, an orphanage in Kenya.
In 2015, the children made $539 in one day. Some cars even pulled up to the intersection and drivers threw money onto the yard, while the children picked coins out of the grass. Ms. Dalrymple says she steps back to let her children take the lead when it comes to deciding on the charity and smaller details such as drawing posters.
"As a young family, we have a lot of financial commitments. We don't have a lot of money we can donate, but we can donate our energy and our spirit," she says. "At the end of the day, the only thing we can do is raise our children right and pass along the idea that we're all caretakers of this world."
That's a lesson that seems to have stuck after the Ecuador trip for Ms. Moore, too. Not only is she in daily contact with three of the friends she made there, after digging rocks to build a bathroom for a small village, she now realizes how fortunate she truly is.
"Being a junior in high school, it obviously gets stressful," she says. "It's good to be able to realize there are bigger problems than my grades."
Finding the right volunteer opportunity isn't always easy, especially when trying to match interests – and hectic schedules – of both parents and children. Here are some easy tips to get your family started.
Begin with a one-time, child-friendly volunteer activity. A cleanup day at the local park or fostering rescued dogs are good places to start. Make sandwiches for guests at a homeless shelter or bring your child's artwork to a local nursing home. Whatever you choose, make sure the children are into it, too.
Consider helping elderly neighbours or baking cookies for the volunteer firefighters. Or combine soccer and the local soup kitchen with a charity tournament. Take a walk around your neighbourhood and see what problems your children notice, then come up with ideas to fix them.
Make it a family affair
Make a list of the things that interest everyone in your family, and rotate the causes you work on together. At public fundraisers or charitable events, find a role for everyone to play, supervising younger children as they gain experience and praise for their work. There are numerous charities that hold annual events and they love to have family support.
Take the next step
Start your journey at we.org. Join in the first-ever We Day Family event at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Oct. 19 (or watch the live webcast). To learn more about how to join in person, check out we.org/wedayfamily.