Suzanne Tobias

August 11, 2011

Suzanne Tobias: Mandatory volunteering is more education than servitude

One juice. Two milks. One can of beans 'n' franks. One fruit cup ...

One juice. Two milks. One can of beans 'n' franks. One fruit cup ...

My son and I learned the order by heart this week when we volunteered at the Kansas Food Bank, filling plastic bags with single-serve foods that are distributed to hungry kids.

Every Friday during the school year, nearly 6,000 Kansas children who show signs of chronic hunger take home a weekend's worth of food in their backpacks as part of the Food 4 Kids program.

My son, Jack, had never seen one of the bags and didn't know about the program. He didn't even know the meaning of chronic hunger, which I had to explain was much more serious than having to wait a couple of hours between snacks.

But Jack needed community-service hours, a requirement of the middle school program he will enter this fall, so I signed him up for a food-bank shift. Because most volunteer opportunities for 11-year-olds require adult supervision, that meant working alongside him.

It's easy, especially for busy parents, to gripe about so-called "service learning," the required community service hours or projects that have become an educational staple.

It's true, mandatory volunteerism seems a contradiction in terms.

But I've discovered, while volunteering with my daughter and now my son, that the experience is more educational opportunity than forced servitude.

Hannah and I have walked dogs at the Kansas Humane Society. She has washed surgical tools and calmed nervous puppies and kittens in the spay-neuter clinic. We have picked up trash in local parks, shelved library books, filled Easter eggs for a neighborhood event and helped teachers organize classroom supplies.

Wherever we work, during the shift or afterward, we talk about how the task helps our community. This week at the food bank, as we filled bags with peanut butter, raisins and a tasty-looking beef stick that my son begged to sample, the lesson was clear.

"Can I have one?" Jack said, holding up a beef stick.

I shook my head. "We have plenty of food," I told him. "This goes to kids who might have nothing else to eat."


He'd heard about hungry children, but the idea of a fridge without baby carrots or a pantry without peanut butter or saltine crackers stopped him short. You mean this bag of stuff might be all a kid eats? For a whole weekend? The bag suddenly seemed a whole lot smaller, the world tougher.

Jack put the beef stick into the bag, scooted it down the table, added two bags of cereal and sealed it up. We worked another hour or so, chatting about our summer and the coming school year.

Before leaving, we marveled at all the bags we'd assembled, packed so neatly, eight to a box, ready to go to someone who needs them. We went home and had hot dogs for lunch — the closest thing we had to beef sticks — and counted our blessings.

One more lesson learned.

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