Every month, the Collins Whitehead family throws a birthday party. They plan craft activities, buy presents, bring cake and celebrate with other families who might not have the money to host a party for their own kids.
For the past six years, the Spokane Valley family has been volunteering at St. Margaret’s Shelter, an emergency and transitional shelter for homeless women and their children.
On the last Friday of each month, John Whitehead, Bobbi Collins Whitehead and their two children – Kylle, 14, and Aidyn, 3 – spend an evening at the shelter to get better acquainted with the families and to honor those who turned a year older in the past month.
As they prepare for each visit, the Collins Whitehead family works together to come up with an activity such as icing cookies, designing cards or making homemade ice cream for the moms to do with their kids.
They then purchase the supplies as well as shop for age-appropriate gifts that they wrap for each birthday celebrant.
“It’s always a fun time,” said Collins Whitehead. “Our family always has big birthday parties, so we wanted to do something to help others celebrate their own special occasion.”
Families who volunteer together have much to gain, experts say. The experience not only strengthens communication and increases problem-solving abilities, it also encourages families to become more involved in their communities while enabling parents and older siblings to be role models to the younger ones.
By working side-by-side, families who give back to the community learn about social issues and spend quality time together. As a result, children learn values from their parents that include empathy, tolerance, respect and civic engagement.
For the Collins Whitehead family, the volunteer experience at St. Margaret’s has helped broaden their perspective. It also has served as a reminder of the many blessings they have and the importance of giving to others.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Collins Whitehead said. “We’re not going to be the wealthiest people in town, but when we are able to give, we try. …
“For some kids, this might be their only birthday party. It helps us see that what we do matters and that our work means something.”
Families who volunteer together gain insight about others and how their actions and experiences have the power to change lives, said Jody Nelson, the volunteer coordinator at St. Margaret’s.
“The actions that parents show are a stronger lesson for children – actions speak louder than words,” said Nelson, who works with about 500 volunteers.
Children learn compassion and understanding from their parents, she said. They also recognize that it’s not just about giving time, but making a connection with others.
By working as a family, they also realize “that people are the same no matter where you go,” Nelson said.
Because most of the families at St. Margaret’s stay for about two years, the Collins Whitehead family has had the opportunity to get to know the moms and bond with them, noted John Whitehead. In some ways, they become part of their own family, he said.
Sometimes, the desire to do volunteer work stems from the children instead of being initiated by the parent. In recent years, Nelson said she has seen many high school-age students who volunteer and eventually inspire their parents to do the same.
According to a national study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 15.5 million youths between the ages of 12 and 18 contributed more than 1.3 billion hours of service during 2004.
While some families come just a few times to volunteer at St. Margaret’s, there are others like the Collins Whitehead family that visit on a regular basis and have established a relationship with the residents.
Gratitude, helping those in need and giving back to the community are what Collins Whitehead has imparted to her children since they were young. She also uses their birthdays to teach this lesson.
When Kylle was 3, Collins Whitehead started bringing him to the migrant daycare camp in the Tri-Cities, where they would distribute gifts and crayons to other children.
On his birthdays, they would take some of his old toys and bring them to the YWCA in Walla Walla, where they lived before moving to Spokane in 2002.
“It was a good way to remind him that not everyone has what he has,” Collins Whitehead said.
At the time, she was raising Kylle by herself. Her first husband, a deputy sheriff in Walla Walla County, suddenly died from a disease called myocardidis when she was two months pregnant. She was a single mom for eight years.
After she and John Collins got married and moved to Spokane, she wanted to continue teaching Kylle about the importance of helping those in need.
During Mass one morning at St. John Vianney, where Kylle attends school, a volunteer from Catholic Charities talked to the families about the nonprofit agency and its work with homeless men, women in transition, seniors and other vulnerable people throughout Eastern Washington. That’s when she got the idea that her family needed to volunteer together on a regular and structured basis.
When Aidyn was born, her parents immediately brought her to the monthly parties at St. Margaret’s. Now that she’s a preschooler, Aidyn plays with the other children at the shelter and takes part in the crafts. Often, she is able to make connections between her experience at the shelter and the lessons she learns at preschool and Sunday school, her mother said.
Some experts say that it’s a good idea for even young children to be part of volunteer work as long as they are supervised.
“The younger your children are when you volunteer, the better,” according to the founders of The Volunteer Family, a national online volunteer center. “You are establishing the basis for a lifelong habit that they will pass along to their own children.”
The experience at St. Margaret’s also has had a profound effect on Kylle, an eighth-grader.
“He has a generous heart,” said Collins Whitehead, noting how her son always tells her to stop at street corners and give money to the poor men and women with signs.
“My favorite part is watching the children blow out candles and open presents,” Kylle said of the visits to St. Margaret’s.
Although school dances and other social events sometimes take place on the Friday nights when his family volunteers at the shelter, Kylle never skips a birthday party. He has even brought some of his friends along.
“It means a lot for me to be with my family and to celebrate with the kids,” said Kylle, who plans to continue doing volunteer work when he goes to Gonzaga Prep in the fall.
“It’s great to experience something with my family while also practicing what I’ve learned at church and at Catholic school and also while helping the community.”
As a family, they’ve learned that the women at St. Margaret’s and others in need “are people just like us,” said Collins Whitehead.
“They’ve just had bad circumstances happen in their lives. Being there has made us a lot less quick to judge.”
It also has brought them closer as a family unit, she said, as well as strengthened their faith.
“When you come together like that, it just makes you feel more grateful for each other and for what you have,” she said. “It helps you see that your own problems, in the whole grand scheme of things, are just not that big.”
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