When we’re younger, we’re often required to complete community service hours to graduate from high school. It’s an obligation, a box we tick off our graduation checklist.

It’s a part of the process here in Northeast Florida and it was for me in Maryland many years ago. I got my service hours during sleepovers at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. My role was to shuffle kids this way and that and coach them through projects. I was relieved when my service hours were completed, and I went on my way.

Until I had my son. That’s when my paradigm shifted. What kind of human did I want him to be? What behavior did I want to model for him? That was easy – empathy, compassion, and understanding. And what better way to do that than to give my time and energy to helping others.

At first, I struggled to find an organization that resonated with me. Then I found Ability Tree First Coast, a non-profit designed to create inclusive and supportive communities where individuals and families impacted by disability can enjoy healthy relationships. I was immediately smitten and dove in. Like so many of us, my time is stretched thin, but I’m committed to showing up for several hours every week. Whether it’s admin work or supporting an event, I do what I can.

And I bring my 5-year-old along with me. It’s important to me that he sees me showing up for people as an important and essential mechanism to build relationships and connectivity. I want him to learn empathy, compassion and kindness – values that will shape him as he grows into a decent and caring man.

Brianna at an event in January
Brianna at an event in January

I’m not alone in my quest to bring my child up with values that matter to me. Amanda Smith volunteers for Odyssey of the Mind, a non-profit dedicated to creative problem-solving strategies and collaboration. She serves as the regional director of the Manatee Region, which includes Northeast Florida.

“We love giving back in a way that gives kids a creative outlet that teaches real-life problem-solving, out-of-the-box thinking and teamwork,” she says. As a volunteer-run operation, it can take 100 volunteers to effectively run a regional Odyssey of the Mind tournament. To say they are essential is a gross underestimation of volunteers’ importance.

And Amanda would know this very intimately; she has been part of the organization since she was young.

“I participated when I was a student and hope my 8-month-old will want to participate one day, too,” she muses, noting many families volunteer together as a joint effort to the cause.

As one parent, who prefers to remain anonymous, shares, “It gives them work ethic, connection, and a sense of being part of a bigger movement of helping others and animals and the environment. It builds intrinsic motivation.”

The opportunities to volunteer abound. Spending time at your church is a great way to start. Local hospitals need more support than we realize. Community gardens not only look beautiful, but they are also a way to engage with nature and to teach children skills and build relationship with the world around us. Getting involved at your child’s school is a great way to know what’s going on and keep a watchful eye on the school environment. You can also try coaching a sports activity.

And it doesn’t have to be formal to be productive and meaningful. Simple beach clean-ups or neighborhood trash collections can have a great impact. Tending to overgrown areas and community spaces that have been overlooked is also helpful and serves the greater good.

As my child witnesses me supporting others and engaging with our neighbors, my hope is he will also find value and joy in volunteering and that he will realize it’s not just ticking a box on his graduation checklist.