Atlanta holiday volunteer opportunities for families

Michael and Michele Kendrick and their three children are volunteer rock stars. “We have always volunteered with our children.  Serving others is in their blood,” said Michele, a stay-at-home-mom who describes herself as a “roll up the sleeves” parent.

Twice a year, the Alpharetta-based family travels to a poor, rural area of Kentucky to help people with home restoration projects.  This spring they’ll head to Kenya for the second time to help with village transformations. And around this time of year, they volunteer closer to home for North Fulton Community Charities' (NFCC) holiday program.

Michael, Michele and their two older children, Grant, 19, and Madison, 13, sort and bag groceries so that less fortunate families can prepare a Thanksgiving meal. NFCC’s program director, Eden Purdy, said that they use 200 volunteers that day to pack 2,200 bags of groceries.

On the day the families come, the Kendricks help to deliver the groceries to their cars. “When the volunteers get to interact with the families, it gives them that hands-on recognition. They’re really helping that person, not just a number,” Purdy said.

Michael, who works as an investment banker, believes that’s especially important for children.  “It’s one thing to go in a room and sort cans,” he said. “But if you can get your kids early on to really be in the act of handing that bag of goods to that person who is clearly, visibly in need, that in itself will grip your kids’ hearts.”

The Kendricks really make that one-on-one connection when they work as personal shoppers in NFCC’s Santa Shop, a place where individuals, schools and companies donate new toys. More than 700 NFCC families are invited to pick out three complimentary gifts per child. The personal shoppers help the parents select toys, check out and then load the gifts into their cars. “It’s fun to watch the moms and dads choose special gifts for their children.  They get so excited,” Michele said.

The importance of  volunteers

For both the Thanksgiving program and the Santa Shop, volunteers sign up for two- to three-hour shifts. “Some volunteers will stay over two shifts because they enjoy it so much. It’s a rewarding and fulfilling opportunity,” Purdy said.

If they didn’t have 400 volunteers in the Santa Shop, Purdy added, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the families in the short time frame. “The last thing we want to do is turn someone away,” she said.

Last year NFCC utilized 2,000 volunteers for their holiday program. Purdy said she saw a lot of the same faces at different events and she sees the same people year after year. “We are very blessed to live in a generous community. I’ve been doing this program for four years and I have never had a problem getting enough volunteers,” Purdy said.

Volunteering on the rise

NFCC is experiencing a trend that’s happening nationwide: More people are choosing to volunteer. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, approximately 1.6 million more volunteers served in 2009 than in 2008. Perhaps they heard about recent studies reported by the Corporation that show that adults who volunteer are more likely to experience health benefits relating to mobility, mental health and longevity. However, the research also indicates that it takes more than one shift at a toy drive to reap those rewards. Volunteers who demonstrated significant health benefits served about one to two hours per week.

Involving the kids

Even though the Kendrick kids have been volunteering their whole lives, Michael admits that sometimes they have other ideas for how to spend a Sunday afternoon. “You’d love to say they’re so excited about it,” he said. “You get the superficial teenager, rolling their eyes. But when they get there, they really enjoy it; you can see it.”

Daughter Madison said she especially enjoys volunteering for the Thanksgiving grocery distribution. “I feel like I’m helping out the community. We have a great time. We laugh, work hard and even years later we remember something about the time we spent together.” Son Grant said it reminds him of how thankful he should be for what he’s been given. And while son Carson, 9, isn’t old enough to volunteer for NFCC (the minimum age is 13), Michele said he loves to volunteer in other ways “and gets right in there to do what he can.”

The Kendricks hope that volunteering instills a sense of gratitude in their children. “We’re not immune as adults that we take a whole bunch of things for granted. We have this innate selfishness,” Michael said. “The act of serving others, giving something of yourself, even if it’s just your time—and time is pretty precious to a lot of people, even a teenager. When you give that away it breaks that cycle of greed.”

For kids who have never volunteered, Michael recommends giving them plenty of notice so they can work it into their schedules.  He said it's important to explain that they’re going to do this because it’s the right thing to do. “Pull them by the ear” if you have to, he said.

Once they go along and see the people they are helping, he said, the next time, “They may be telling you that you need to go do it.”

Here are some places with volunteer opportunities for the holiday season:

North Fulton Community Charities

Volunteers can help by sorting and distributing groceries for Thanksgiving, distributing gifts to sponsored families or working in the Santa Shop.

Must be over 13. Ages 13 to15 must have a parent with them. Ages 16 to 18 can volunteer individually, but if a group of 16- to 18-year-olds volunteers they must have a parent chaperone.

Explorewww.nfccholiday.org

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Work with the largest Christmas parade in the Southeast on Dec. 4 by helping to direct parking, guide parade acts to their appropriate spots, carry banners or coordinate giant balloon deliveries.

Ages 16 and up

childrens@argonneparades.com or visit www.choa.org/parade.

Toys for Tots

Sort and bag toys for distribution in their warehouse.

All ages may volunteer, but kids need adult supervision.

www.northatlantatoysfortots.org (Click on the volunteer tab on right; see list of warehouse shifts.)

Catholic Charities Atlanta

On Dec. 10 in Gwinnett County and Dec. 13 in Midtown, Catholic Charities needs volunteers to distribute and sort Christmas gifts from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Anyone age 16 and older may participate, and younger children may come with parents.

Email vol@catholiccharitiesatlanta.org for more information.

Must Ministries of Cherokee County

Sort donated food and gifts, pack Thanksgiving meal boxes, work as a greeter, serve as a client assistant (bilingual volunteers especially needed), restock the toy store and help with set-up and take-down of the toy store.

No volunteers under 10. Minors from 10 to 17 must be accompanied by parent or responsible adult at all times. Groups of volunteers under the age of 18 must have adult supervision in a ratio of one supervisor to every seven volunteers.

Contact Cat Petty at 770-479-5397 ext. 3107 or e-mail at mcherokee@mustministries.org

Second Wind Dreams

Be an elf for the Gifts of Light holiday program by delivering gifts to residents in nursing homes on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

All ages welcome.

www.secondwind.org, click on Ways to Help.

North Gwinnett Co-op

Work in the thrift store or as a runner, taking grocery bags to cars for their holiday meal program.

Volunteers must be at least 16.

Contact ngcoop@bellsouth.net

Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services

Assist with sorting, labeling and wrapping gifts for holiday programs.

Ages 9 and up.

Call 404-699-4387 or email Delores S. Battle at dsbattle@dhr.state.ga.us.