Do Good: When volunteering is a family affair

It lifts one's spirit. It brings families closer together. And it improves our community.

"It" is the concept of volunteering. Not only do individuals and groups get in on the action, children are getting involved at a very young age, following in their parents' footsteps. Not for nothing does Grand Rapids continue to find itself on national lists of most philanthropic cities, and that means giving goes beyond writing a check or working in a soup kitchen once a year.
Well, it's the holiday season, and in the spirit of giving, for this week's Do Good, we interviewed three families who make volunteering a part of their year-round family culture. You'll notice a few common threads weaving through the stories: a passion to serve, a sincere desire to "do good," and kids who volunteer right alongside mom and dad.

The family that serves together…

"We serve as a family, and get dirty together," says Chad Dupin, director of marketing at ITS Partners, an information technology firm in Grand Rapids. Dupin, his wife, and two young daughters live in East Grand Rapids and volunteer for In the Image, their church, and have traveled to offer help in places like Haiti and Zambia. "When my kids get their allowance, they give a third of it away," Dupin says. "I like to see my kids volunteering, and they plan to do more. What does it teach them to just give away money?"

Ruth Kelly, Second Ward Commissioner at the City of Grand Rapids, and her family have volunteered for myriad organizations and causes over the years. Kelly is "a lifetime community advocate who has dedicated her life to serving others." Her eight children, all of whom are now adults, started volunteering when they were little, and one daughter served in the Peace Corps.

Says Zoe Carmichael, "I've been volunteering at my girls' school since they've been in school." Carmichael is a communication consultant, speaker coach, and adjunct professor at Kendall College of Art and Design. Her family volunteers with TEDxGrandRapids, SiTE:LAB, and other local organizations and cultural institutions. "Our twin daughters help out in several ways," she says. "They hand out brochures at SiTE:LAB, arrange sets, and move furniture. Grand Rapids is a place where we plan to be for a long period of time. Our family is very involved in the community."

What they get out of it

All three families say they reap a variety of benefits from volunteering. Dupin says that helping others helps his kids appreciate what they have. "There's no crime in East Grand Rapids," he says. "We live in a bubble. When my kids volunteer at In the Image and help a girl choose one pair of shoes -- from a selection of three pairs -- to wear all year, it makes them appreciate the fact that they can get new shoes every month."

Dupin thinks giving back is part of a healthy life and should be a priority. "The people and the neighborhood we live in are great, but I'm at a point in life where I've done a lot, gotten the house I like, and I want to see how we can help better others," says Dupin. "Once you are over 40, the number-one priority in life should be investing in the next generation."

For Carmichael -- who spends hours of work behind the scenes of TEDx helping people get prepared -- giving back offers a feeling of satisfaction. "If I can provide tools to make others successful, I have succeeded," she says.

"Giving back is something bigger than yourself, and it helps create a healthy mental attitude," says Kelly. "It's one of the most important aspects of being human. A lot of volunteer activities have a physical component: marathons, walking door to door handing out flyers, and building houses, for example. There is an emotional aspect, too. You are not just thinking about yourself and your own worries. And, of course, there's a social component, the community component."

It's in their DNA

Giving back is an integral part of each family's history and culture.

Chad Dupin says he was "born with the bug" to volunteer. His family came to Michigan from North Carolina when he was young. His father is a pastor in Hudsonville. "I grew up serving others all the time," Dupin says.

Kelly says it's embedded in the history of her family. Both her and husband's parents did a lot of volunteering with the church and political parties, so she grew up with it. "It was expected that we would be doing this in our lives," she says.

Getting the kids involved

Dupin says, "The key is to plant the seed in your kids when they are young and hope it takes root." He suggests offering volunteer opportunities that are age-appropriate, such as handing out flyers. "Talk to them afterward and ask, 'What do you think?' What my wife and I try to teach the girls is, if you feel something in your heart, act on it. We encourage our girls to speak out and talk about their feelings."

When Kelly's kids were little, they helped distribute flyers for neighborhood associations and political causes. "They just took a walk with mom," she says. Kelly suggests that families look around and "pick some things at the grassroots level in your own neighborhood, something that connects you to your neighbors, something you can do as family. It's going to benefit you in the long run, and it is very helpful to the community."

Carmichael says, "When my kids ask me why we are doing this, I tell them that your community is what you make it. And Grand Rapids has so many opportunities. If we want to grow and expand, we have to get involved. I want my kids to look back and think, 'I had a hand in it. I made a difference.'"

Get involved:

There are too many organizations that welcome volunteer help and donations to share here, but consider making year-round volunteering a New Year's resolution. Start by exploring this list. Or contact your neighborhood association for ideas.

Victoria Mullen is the Do Good editor for Rapid Growth Media.
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