Family Volunteering in Cedar Rapids: Cultivating Empathy in Children

Lately, it seems that everything I read or see in regard to parenting portrays the scary world in which we are raising our children. Are my children safe to walk home from school unsupervised? What effects are overly-processed foods having on our children? Are sports and activities dictating family life?

I often have to remind myself to step back and drink in a healthy dose of perspective. My children are fed, clothed and feel safe. They are allowed an education. They have access to clean water, stable shelter and someone who loves them unconditionally. This. This is all that my children need.

So, I feel it’s important that, as a family who has these things, we help ensure that other families have access to these things too.

I want my children to understand that they were born into a country of relative safety, abundant resource, and endless opportunity. Not everyone is that fortunate. Girls just like mine are born into countries where they are refused an education, forced into child labor, or trafficked. It is important to me that my girls understand privilege, that sometimes, it’s not about how hard you work. Sometimes it comes down to how lucky you are.

So, I don’t shy away from putting them in situations where they feel uncomfortable.

Face-to-face with hunger.

Immersed in poverty.

Aware of homelessness. 

I encourage them to talk to everyone, to learn their stories, and to embrace their pain. I am a firm believer that you get more out of giving than receiving. I want them to know the gift that awaits them when they adopt a heart to serve others. 

Here are our 5 favorite places to volunteer as a family:

1. Green Square Meals

They are always in need of volunteers to help prepare and serve meals to those in need. Meals are served Monday through Friday from 4:30-5:30. Clean up only takes about 15 minutes and Jill and her crew at GSM are a welcoming bunch who will help new volunteers feel right at home. My 10 and 12-year-old are able to serve, prepare veggies, fill dressings, pour drinks, etc. Any child middle school-aged or older would be a great asset to the volunteer team.

2. Catholic Worker House

Catholic Worker House offers guests shelter for 30-90 days. Along with shelter, they provide residents two meals each day as well as help in finding a job or housing. They would love if your family could prepare a meal and deliver it. Or, offer your skills as a handyman or decorator to take care of the house. It only takes about 5 minutes for my family to drop a meal off, but the perspective that my children have gained has helped them better appreciate the gifts of shelter, warm food, and the kindness of strangers.

3. His Hands-Free Clinic 

His Hands Free Clinic offers free medical, chiropractic, women’s health, mental health, physical therapy, prescription assistance, patient advocacy and dental services. They are looking for volunteers to help with reception, filing, copying, phones and those willing to pray with [and for] all of those who enter. After our son passed away, we donated many of his unused medical supplies to His Hands, and their offer to sit and pray with us touched us deeply.

4. Metro Catholic Outreach

This is an outreach that provides a food pantry, community assistance referrals, and financial assistance for housing and utilities to those in need. They could use volunteers in their food pantry, connecting clients to financial resources, or tending to their gardens in the spring and summer to supply fresh veggies to the community. We have been able to help with food distribution, stocking shelves, cleaning floors, and tending to the MCO gardens.

5. Salvation Army

The Salvation Army offers assistance to all those in need. The volunteer opportunities through the Salvation Army are numerous whether your interests are helping veterans, the homeless, those suffering from poverty or hunger, disaster relief, or domestic abuse. If you have a passion to help a certain demographic, the Salvation Army is awaiting your time and talent. My children have always loved picking a few nights during the holiday season to ring the bell for their Red-Kettle Campaign.

These are just a few of the places that we enjoy volunteering with our children. However, our community has numerous outreach programs to assist those who find themselves struggling. My girls have loved volunteering, supporting or donating to all of these.

If you have the means, I promise you these organizations will give you more than you are giving them. For even more opportunities, check out this post and visit United Way of East Central Iowa to search for and adopt an organization in the Cedar Rapids Metro Area that you hold dear. 


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Jaclyn is an Iowa native with roots in the Midwest, but a heart full of wanderlust. She loves to run, read and travel. She and her husband, Mark, have 3 daughters (13, 11, and 7) and an incredible baby boy in Heaven. She spends her days split quite evenly between teaching Spanish at Xavier High School and taxiing her girls around CR as they try to find their passions. She’s a firm believer that it’s not joy that makes us grateful, but rather gratitude that makes us joyful.