4 fun ways to teach joys of volunteering

By Christine Badowski
Special to the Tribune
Published June 23, 2005

Once school lets out for the summer, kids and parent alike welcome a vacation. But by the second or third week, video games, TV and the beach get old and the cry, “Mom, we’re bored,” starts to grate.

This summer, spend some time with the kids and give a little something back to the community at the same time by volunteering. In addition to helping others, it’s an education your kids won’t even realize they are getting.

Start on the right foot

When Share Your Soles founder Mona Purdy traveled through Central America in 1999, she saw shoeless children painting tar on the soles of their bare feet.

Aiming to make a difference, Purdy started collecting shoes to donate. They are kept in an Alsip warehouse, where volunteers are welcome to help sort, clean and box shoes for shipments.

“You should see the younger kids,” says Purdy. “They shine shoes until you can see yourself in them.”

Because many of the shoes go to children around the world, Purdy says kids who volunteer feel a direct connection to the project. There is no age restriction for volunteers, but Purdy says that children who understand the concept of what they are doing are most helpful.

It’s best, she says, for “kids who are about 7 or 8 years old, who can play games like Old Maid and match things up, [who] like pairing up shoes and putting them together.”

Take a hike

If you’d like to explore the woods, why not have it benefit an organization? The North Branch Restoration Project is working to restore and manage the few remaining woodlands and prairies along the North Branch of the Chicago River in the Cook County Forest Preserves.

On any day–rain or shine–volunteer opportunities abound, and children are always welcome. While there aren’t age restrictions, you should determine whether the kids are up to the tasks, including clearing brush and overgrown vegetation, photographing and documenting populations of birds, butterflies and other animals. Stewards and crew leaders are on hand to provide information and assistance.

Bill Koenig, volunteer coordinator for the Cook County Forest Preserve, says that kids tend to zero in on the details–tiny insects, unique leaves, etc.–while they’re exploring, which creates a greater awareness of the woods on the whole. “They learn about all the other things out there and that it’s not just trees and flowers,” he says.

You can also help out from your home by doing “wild gardening”–raising native plants in your backyard as a seed source for replanting in prime restoration sites. “It’s something we haven’t done for years, but are really getting back to doing. It’s something families can get into; it’s a real way to see seeds take root and grow,” says Koenig.

Dig the dirt

If you’ve always wanted to grow your own garden, but the balcony of your apartment complex doesn’t provide the space, Fourth Presbyterian Church can help you and your kids become urban farmers.

On a 250-by-130-foot plot of land at Chicago and Hudson Avenues is a garden organized by church members, but open to anyone. On the site are ornamental beds, vegetable beds and a butterfly garden.

Parents and kids (preferably older than 6 years) can participate on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Just call ahead first. Kids can help with watering, weeding and picking up trash in different sections of the garden.

Help the hungry

Although some people are more conscious of feeding the poor during the winter holiday season, the need at the Greater Chicago Food Depository is just as great in the summer.

Renee Prejean-Motanky of the Greater Chicago Food Depository says: “Pretty much any volunteer opportunity here would be suitable for kids to participate in.” Those efforts include cleaning, sorting and/or repacking donated food and other products.

At least one adult supervisor is required for every four kids 13 to 15 years old. Younger children can help out on Kids’ Day (the next one will take place in August). And kids 16 years and older can volunteer on their own.

All volunteer sessions must be scheduled in advance. Check the Web site ( for more information or contact volunteer services at 773-247-3663.

Play list

Share Your Soles 5619 W. 115th St., Alsip, 708-448-4469,

North Branch Restoration Project 773-631-1790 or

Fourth Presbyterian Church 126 E. Chestnut St., 312-573-3369 or

Greater Chicago Food Depository 4100 W. Ann Lurie Pl., 773-247-3663 or