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I was having a conversation with a young lady the other day that brought to mind the topic of finding what you are really passionate about.  She is a graduate student ready to enter the workforce, yet having trouble finding something for which she is qualified and excited about.  She is qualified to do some …

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I’ve been on a journey to find out how I can serve in the community WITH my three small-ish kids: ages 9, 7 and 5.  The older two can serve at many different local nonprofits, but these don’t welcome my 5 year old.  And trust me, she needs to learn the lessons of serving others as the diva, youngest child of the family.  I thought I would share what I have found and a few really easy, but creative ideas in case your local nonprofits aren’t flexible with kids.

 

Each community is different, so you would need to check on the requirements locally.  But, here are some types of nonprofits that might accept younger children for volunteer service with their parents:

–       Humane Society (walking the dogs, petting cats)

–       Food pantry (bagging or serving families coming in)

–       Homeless shelters that accept families with kids (socializing with the children)

–       Church-based projects, like fall festivals or holiday parties, clothing drives, food drives, clean-up days

–       School-based projects similar in nature to those at the churches

 

When all else fails, we just have to get REALLY creative to teach the littlest ones in our families about the value of serving the community and the personal rewards we gain when we serve.  I thought of some creative ideas and have implemented a few with my kids.   Enjoy serving the community!

  1. Collect canned goods for the local food pantry.  Call them first to see what they need so they don’t end up with 20 cases of diced tomatoes when they really needed some tuna.  Take your wagon around the neighborhood or ask other parents at the kids’ activities to help.  Bring the list and a brochure or picture of the food pantry.  This time of the year, food pantries are stretched seriously thin as family budgets devote more to heat and fuel costs, eating into funds available for food.
  2. Call your kids’ school and find out if a family is in need of help with Christmas gifts or warm coats for their kids.  Get a list and help the kids ask neighbors and friends to help with an item or funds.  Involve the kids, but keep the family’s identity unknown to them.  We’ve done this at church almost every year for the last ten years and the kids love to go shopping for someone their own age.  If there are no families in need at school or church, the Salvation Army offers angels every year.  See their website for details (www.salvationarmyusa.org) or at JC Penney’s website.
  3. Collect spare change in an old paint or coffee can and donate to an overseas orphanage.  I stole this one from The Joseph School(thejosephschool.org), an orphan-education program in Haiti.  We are doing this now and you would be amazed at how much spare change we have managed to collect in a few short months.  Take the can around at work or help the kids go door-to-door at Halloween with the can and you’ll be even more shocked.  Change in a paint can could total more than $100.

    Paint Can to collect coins

  4. Go to the park on a Saturday, but bring a few big trash bags and clean up trash first, then play.  Keep recycling separate!  My kids are recycling freaks and I bet yours are too.  My littlest is really good at spotting small pieces of plastic hidden in grass.  To keep them focused on the task, I stay with the trash bag in the middle of the field and send them out to find 5 items each time.  Then we move general locations.  If you do this along a walking trail, have them come back every 3 items so that they don’t inadvertently drop the trash they have already picked up.  Make it even more fun by making up a list of trash types for each kid to find, sort of like a scavenger hunt, and check them off as they find them.
  5. Find an older neighbor who might have trouble raking their leaves – and offer your family’s services for free.  Bring the trash bags, rakes and any other needed equipment, then put the leaves in the designated areas for pick-up by local services.  You can even make this a multi-family or mom-daughter / father-son event for a few friends.  Kids love playing in the leaves, so be sure to budget plenty of time for raking and re-raking the piles a few times!  Small kids can be the ones who stand in the bags and compress the leaves down further.  Bigger kids can rake and bag.  Bring a loaf of bread or a casserole as an additional blessing.
  6. Call the kids’ school to see what easy projects need to be done there – this might include light gardening, trash pick-up, sweeping sidewalks, or raking leaves.  Recruit a few families to participate and make it a fun weekend afternoon for the kids with a picnic lunch or snack at their own school playground as the reward.  The kids will think it is really fun to be at the school on the weekend and they will see the results of their work the next week.

 

If you have more ideas, let us know with a comment!

Have you ever taken a walk or a bike ride with no real target, no agenda, no destination?  These can be fun every now and then, but if there is someone else with you chances are you will disagree on where to go, how long to be gone and when to turn around toward home.  And the bigger the group (and maybe the younger they are), the more questions are asked like, “when will we be there?”  If you have no destination in mind, how can you even answer that question?

 

I don’t know why, but most people find volunteer or nonprofit work an acceptable place to not have an end goal in mind.  The excuses are myriad, but might sound like this, “there is so much work to do, we will never be done anyway” or “we don’t want to set a goal because if we don’t achieve it that will make the people we are serving feel bad, like they didn’t matter to us.”  There are others, but those are two I’ve heard more than a few times.  How can we get away with this attitude of a wanderer when it comes to service when we would never tolerate that from a company like Apple or Wal-Mart – and we certainly wouldn’t tolerate it even for our own family vacation (imagine just starting out to drive to Florida with no idea where Florida even is)?  We would never even think of doing that, hopefully.

 

We get away with it in the community service realm because not setting concrete goals and holding ourselves accountable to them has become acceptable in our society.  Not everyone neglects goals (and there are some awesome people doing great work and KEEPING their promises to communities), but it is prevalent enough in our society that setting goals can somehow seem to be too serious, not relaxed or “not organic”.  So how do we set a new standard of accountability and excellence, yet still maintain our laid-back, hipster image?  We must be forward-thinking and backward-looking.

 

Forward Thinking

Being forward-thinking means that we must start out with the end in mind.  We must have a goal before we get started, which to some puts you in the category of “brilliant visionary” and to others “nerd”.  But it is more simple than the first and more cool than the second.  The marathoner doesn’t just start out running haphazardly, somehow expecting to be ready to run 26.2 miles within a few hours.  No!  He sets a training schedule based on a reasonable expectation of completion time, then he diligently implements that schedule, even in bad weather.  In the same way, we have to decide beforehand what our goals will be and how we will know if we have met them.

 

So, say you were wanting to help your school’s Boy Scout troop do a community service project of cleaning the roadsides around the school.  You would decide beforehand what the definition of clean is – this might include trash picked up, leaves raked, twigs and fallen limbs removed, and maybe grass trimmed and mowed.  Maybe it only includes some of those.  Then, during the project if one Scout is not meeting the definition of clean, he can be held accountable and sent back out to rake or trim more thoroughly, or whatever he has fallen short in.  But if there is no goal, any work, even shoddy work, is OK.

 

Backward Looking

Being backward-looking means that along the way we must check, as a group, to see how our progress has come along toward that goal.  If that same scout troop knew they had 2 miles of roads to clean up and half of their time had passed, then they should have completed 1 mile.   If at the halfway point of time the troop is less than halfway in progress, then they can figure out what is slowing the work down and change their plan.  In that way, problems could be identified quickly and solved, while the group as a whole kept their pace up to ensure completion within the given time frame.  Or maybe they realized that another day would be needed to finish the job to the accepted standard.  That day can be scheduled and the community aware of the extension in the project time.  That might even motivate some community members to come out and help too, just to save the troop from the second service day!

 

Every project, even a modest one like a road clean-up day, should have a goal so that the participants and those being served can acknowledge the job is done – and so that there is a natural break time for evaluation of the project.  Any project that goes on seemingly forever is disheartening to those helping out and will eventually cause volunteers to abandon ship due to burnout.  Working without stop toward an undefined goal will feel like toil, not joyful work, even in service.  On the other hand, goals give us something to celebrate when we achieve them, something we as leaders should provide for anyone sacrificing their time to give back to the community.  Remember, we are still human after all, not emotionless robots, and we need to feel like our work makes a difference.

I really am not sure which is worse from a practical standpoint, ignoring local resources or ignoring the people in the community.  Probably ignoring the people from a Biblical standpoint, as God always wants us to value people greater than things.  But practically speaking, #4 and #3 are really more like a tie for third.  Just like ignoring local resources and potentially putting local businesses into difficult situations (like you bringing in something they sell and giving it out for free), ignoring the opinions and ideas of the people you are trying to serve can really end up back-firing big time.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.  The names and locations are fictional to protect any possible guilty, naive and innocent groups that might have done something similar. Say there was a group in Adelaide, Australia that was serving “HIV orphans” in Thailand.  They didn’t speak the language, but had found someone who they thought seemed trustworthy to serve as the local representative for them in a novel orphanage concept.  They sent money and teams to work with this individual and the orphans they had gathered, but didn’t attempt to meet or interact with other leaders in the community.  Years passed and the Australians found out that their representative was stealing from them, that the “orphans” weren’t really lacking parents but had been trafficked by their local representative, and that the community and its leaders questioned their work and their motives.  They had made a colossal error without realizing it, even thinking they were doing a great job.  It took an intervention from several community leaders who came into the situation to provide wisdom and cover for the Aussies.
If this situation were true, this group might have been in serious trouble with the local authorities (who may have thought they were child sex traffickers!) because they had not taken the time to develop better relations with the community they were serving.  If they had, they could’ve found out the reputation of their local representative and heard about what was really happening with their funds.  We could only hope for a good end to the fictional story because of their heart to serve true orphans.

So, how can we avoid this mistake?

  1. Actively pursue peer-leader relationships with multiple community leaders where you are serving.  Make sure you have a relationship with people from several churches or religious institutions, other nonprofits working in the area, political leaders and other influential community leaders – if only just to check in from time to time and find out what they think of your work and to ask other open-ended questions.
  2. Conduct a community needs survey.  Ask lots of questions about what people and leaders in the community think their main needs are and how these can be addressed.  Often you will find the best ideas come from within the community.  The community simply might not have the capacity to address those needs well from within – or may just need someone to help catalyze and coordinate a project.
  3. Ask open-ended questions when you get time with local community leaders or when conducting that community needs survey.  Questions like, “What do you think are the main issues facing the community now?” or “How do you think we could improve our work?” or “What trends do you see in the community?”  Asking open-ended questions generates discussion and ideas.  Open-ended questions also demonstrate your desire to hear their opinion.
  4. Share your plans while you are still in the research or planning phase.  After you’ve done a community needs survey, let the leaders in the community know the results and the main need that your group will be working to solve.  Then ask for their ideas on how to approach that issue – and maybe what else other groups have done that didn’t quite work as well as hoped.  Find out why past projects failed and what their ideas are for successfully addressing that need.  Take your time and don’t rush straight to a project without making sure to know the history in that area.  If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
  5. Listen.  Listen to the community leaders, listen to your project’s beneficiaries, listen to people on the street.  If you get in the habit of #3, asking open-ended questions, then listening to what people tell you can reveal a lot.  If there is a language barrier, take a translator or learn the language yourselves.  Even halting attempts at another language (then turning to a translator for help!) go a long way to developing authentic relationship with the people you are serving.

The bottom-line is that we can’t act like we are the ones with all the answers, telling “those poor people” how to solve their problems.  This is a phenomenally arrogant and un-Christ-like attitude that, if we are really wanting to serve like Jesus did, we will shed.  Humility goes a long way on the path of success for community service!

This is one we perhaps have all either seen or done: not take into account local resources available to serve the community.  The thinking goes like this: “well, these people are poor, so we have to bring everything in for them in order for this service project to succeed.”  Not only is this presumptive and a bit arrogant, but it creates dependency on outside help.  Jesus even gives us a great example to follow as he commented on the daily offering at the temple in Mark 12: 43-44 (NKJV) “Assuredly I say to you that this poor widow has put more in than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”  Notice how Jesus didn’t prevent her from giving to the temple offering just because she was poor.  Rather, he commended her generosity and her choice to give, despite her situation.  We should never assume that those we are serving will participate in identifying or providing resources for the project, but we should definitely give them the opportunity.

 

Bronze mite (front and back) used during the time of Jesus

So, how can we avoid making the mistake of ignoring local resources in our service to others?

  1. Involve local leaders and community members in the planning phase, especially if the group is from an area outside where the project location.  These local leaders will know what kind of resources are available within the community and how to connect with those resources.  For instance, a medical clinic could choose to purchase medicines from or refer patients to a local pharmacy to support that business.
  2. Ask for participation in collecting resources (both monetary and non-monetary) from those who will be the targeted beneficiaries of a project.  These items or finances will likely not be a large portion of the project, but you could be pleasantly surprised.  For instance, a coat drive within a community should solicit donations of used, but in good condition coats from the area.  This will allow families to sow into those with younger children rather than sell the coats, if they desire to do that.  Some of the most amazing acts of generosity have been done by those most would consider “poor.”  Doing this allows the community members to feel like they played a part in the project and enhances their sense of community ownership.  This also reduces the likelihood of creating dependency through a project meant to benefit the community.
  3. Challenge the norm.  Look at every item needed and budget line item and ask yourselves, “Can I get this from the community – either purchased at a local store or donated by community members”?  Sometimes the easy way to do a project is not the best way.  Sometimes soliciting community involvement and resources takes longer or requires a greater level of planning.  But the easy way (raising the funds and going to Wal-Mart to make purchases), often leads to a sense of dependency on outside assistance.
  4. At the end of the project, consider expanding the project by asking those who were served to help another community nearby.  This “pay it forward” mentality can further break the cycle of dependency and give community leaders confidence in their ability to solve problems.  This also allows them to experience the true gift that serving others provides to the giver / servant leader.

 

Those we are trying to serve deserve to be part of the process – both in the planning and in the resourcing.  We as servant leaders should make every effort to involve the community we are serving.  These were just a few ideas.  If you have more, please tell us in a comment!

Want to alienate the very people you are trying to serve?  Here is the best way to do that: make them “pray” to receive Christ before they are allowed to participate in the service project.  Do you really think this never happens?  I’ve seen it with my own eyes – more times than I care to tell.  And not just by Christians, but with other religions as well (obviously they would be mandating adherence to their religion).  I think the only way people get away with it is if the population is so desperate for service that they will agree to just say something that has no personal meaning in order to get the service.  And if we are serving from a pure servant’s heart, we want to avoid this like the plague!

This particular way to ensure failure is LOADED with issues, so let’s highlight a few:

  1. Conversion will not be genuine.
  2. It starts the “game” of converting to this religion to get that service, then going the next time to another religious-based provider to get another service and so on.  This destroys authentic relationships in the community as everyone competes for the same participants and the community pits one institution against others.
  3. It artificially inflates our own sense of achievement as we “count” new souls “saved.”

I know what you are thinking – no one would REALLY mandate a conversion to Christianity as part of the service project. 

But, let me tell you how this really happens.   Take a medical clinic for example: the doctors are running behind so the “traffic flow” director shifts waiting patients into the “spiritual counseling” area where they hear the gospel.  Because so many other religions only provide services to their members, the patient erroneously believes that unless they confess Christ they will not be able to see the doctor.  So, they confess Christ, fake a tear or two and move on to see the doctor, remaining unchanged in the heart.  This story is not meant to belittle the usefulness of medical clinics to bring the gospel message to those who don’t know Jesus, but rather to highlight how we can create this dynamic unintentionally.  I’ve seen other instances when this was not as subtle and the spiritual counseling portion was planned to happen first, for whatever reason, before the patient saw a provider.

Let me give you a real life example: I’ve been in the “doctor’s chair” in a medical clinic (in which spiritual counseling happened AFTER seeing a provider, but before they went to the pharmacy) when a Muslim older male patient sat down and announced to me that he was a Muslim.  I then proclaimed, “well, I am a Christian and I am fine that you are a Muslim. Is it OK if I am your doctor today?”  Then I told him that I was happy to handle his medical concerns, even if he didn’t confess Christ as his Lord.  He was visibly relieved then began to tell me his symptoms.  I diagnosed him with lung cancer that day after we arranged for a chest x-ray at a local radiological facility and a lung biopsy later.  We then connected him with further diagnostic and longer-term treatment options.  He had no idea he had lung cancer – he thought he had tuberculosis or a lingering pneumonia (and had undergone treatment for both).  Eventually that patient did come to know Jesus, but not because we mandated it as part of the clinic visit.  You see, the Islamic clinics in his city only treated those who attended particular mosques.  When we were willing to treat him as a patient – and then to continue our care through follow-ups – it spoke volumes to him as a person.

This post is the balance to Top Ten Ways to Ensure Project Failure #6 – be quiet as a church mouse about Jesus.  We must be willing to tell people about Jesus, but we need to be very sensitive to the local culture in how we do this.  Community service projects are one of the BEST platforms for the gospel of Jesus, but the gospel’s delivery cannot be one-size fits all.  What works in one place will cause damage in another.  And what works with one population group might bring project failure if tried with another.

So how do we weave the gospel into our community service project well?  We have to start with a few questions and dialogue with local church leaders:

  1. What are the prevailing customs locally regarding the type of project we are considering?  What do other groups do or not do?  Are there other religious-based services and are these restricted to members only?
  2. What is the local perception of Christian-operated service projects and how can this project improve that perception, no matter what it is?
  3. What is the best way to share the gospel in this culture?  How should we involve local church leaders in the planning process and the project’s implementation?
  4. How can we avoid the pitfall of appearing to mandate a conversion to Christianity, while also being faithful to share the gospel and give the opportunity for true relationship with Christ?

The bottom line on this issue is that we need to be bold, but respectful and aware of local cultural issues, in our presentation of the gospel.  When we can do that, we improve our service project’s likelihood of success and that people will be reached with the message of Jesus.

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