If I had a megaphone and 10 seconds to stand in front of every parent of a child with a disability to say one thing, it would be this:
Volunteer with your kids.
Huh? You may be thinking, “After years of experience, being a teacher/administrator/advocate, and getting your M.Ed you’re going to use that time to talk about volunteering?”
And I’m here to say: YES.
In my opinion, there are few opportunities that are as beneficial for kids than volunteering (side note: this is true for kids with and without special needs, but we’ll focus on those with disabilities for the purpose of this post).
- Volunteering builds job skills: Have you ever tried to convince a company to let your child shadow, or even work for free, so that they can gain skills? It’s like pulling teeth. Volunteering is the opposite– it’s a low-risk opportunity for your child to “try out” certain job skills in a safe environment where (most likely) everyone is learning. Some of my favorite volunteering-turned-job-skills opportunities are prepping and serving food at a shelter, organizing donations at a food pantry or resale store, packing gifts for Angel tree or adopt-a-child programs during the holidays, cleaning up local parks, sorting recycling from trash, and handing out programs at churches or for local theater events. All of these opportunities provide hands-on-learning for skills that students can transfer into a paid position some day.
- Volunteering offers natural opportunities to build social skills: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Volunteering with a group (especially with other kids) is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to interact with people who you don’t know. This can be scary, yes, but it’s also a fantastic place to practice those “meeting new people” skills– shaking hands, making eye contact, introducing yourself, and making small talk. And the best part? You never have to see them again if you don’t want to!
- Volunteering provides opportunities to build advocacy skills: Every time I volunteer somewhere new I feel totally out of my element. I don’t know where things are, or how to perform certain skills, or what I’m supposed to do when I’m done with one task and need another. This creates a perfect opportunity to practice asking for help and offering my strengths and disclosing my weaknesses (if asked for preferences between tasks). These are crucial skills for anybody, but are especially necessary in our kids with disabilities. Volunteering provides a low-risk training ground for strengthening this advocacy muscle.
- Volunteering teaches kids that they’re not the only ones with needs: This is SO important. Sometimes our kids feel the burden of the therapies and the meetings and the appointments and the discussions. Sometimes they can feel like they’re broken or that it’s not fair that things are harder for them. Seeing others with needs normalizes and reduces the stigma, shame, and embarrassment that can come from being different. Volunteering opens the door for our children to realize that everyone has needs, and that everyone is capable of being helpful in one way or another. Which leads us to…
- Volunteering allows other members in the community to view people with disabilities as contributors, rather than as solely “takers”: This is an indirect benefit to you, as a parent of a child with a disability, but it’s important nonetheless. Did you know that people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world? If it seems hard to believe, it’s because people with disabilities are not often visible– either because their disability itself doesn’t manifest physically, or because they are hidden at home, in separate schools, in sheltered workshops or in medical facilities. If we want to change the societal narrative about what people with disabilities can do, we have to show people. There’s something called “contact theory” which is as obvious at it sounds– the more contact you have with someone who’s different from you, the less anxiety, fear and negative thought patterns you have about that group as a whole. Volunteering benefits more than just your child and those being directly served. Volunteering shows that people with disabilities can contribute meaningfully to society.
Have I got you convinced? You can find opportunities to volunteer at www.volunteermatch.com or at your local Hands-On Network. If you volunteer and it’s a hit, let us know! We’d love to share photos of you getting out in your community on our Facebook page!
This blog post originally published on iepguru.com