(Of Special Interest to Parents Who Volunteer)
Family Promise seeks to help homeless families by combining safe and comfortable surroundings with the hospitality of volunteer hosts. Guests are benefited from interaction with compassionate volunteers who, by their kind deeds, create a homelike atmosphere in their churches and synagogues.
Some parents who volunteer choose to bring their children with them during their hosting shifts. Volunteers’ children make a positive contribution to the Affiliate and are welcome, but parents are urged to consider the issues addressed in this brochure when deciding about their children’s participation. Suggestions and guidelines, based upon the experiences of Affiliate volunteers and their children, are included.
Children who come to the program should be there to enhance the experience of the guests and their children. Volunteers’ children provide a much needed service when they play with and occupy guests’ children. Guests are then free to attend to other responsibilities or take needed time off, while knowing that their children are enjoying themselves.
Many volunteers report that coming to the Affiliate also benefits their children. “It gives our kids a concrete sense of putting our values, and our congregation’s values, into practice,” comments one mother. Another parent expresses a similar sentiment: “Meeting homeless people puts human faces on the ‘issue’ of homelessness; it develops children’s compassion and tempers their judgments.” It also directly challenges the stereotypes children (and adults) may have about the homeless. A high school student remarks, “I expected something totally different… I thought the people would be like the people you see on the subway in New York City…I realize now that most of these people are just trying really hard to make it.”
Many parents who volunteer want their children to learn that helping others is a way of life. “Family Promise gives our entire family a way to get involved, a place to teach our children that sharing with others is a natural and important part of our family life.” It leads to the sense of “families helping families,” an integral part of the Affiliate’s goals.
Another benefit to children’s participation is the sense of “home” they can create. “It makes the church or synagogue feel a lot homier, with kids running around,” a coordinator comments. It can also establish a common bond between hosts and guests. “Talking about your kids when they’re out there playing together really helps break the ice,” notes a new volunteer. “It gives everyone a sense of community, showing we’re not so different from each other.”
While most families have good experiences hosting together, there may also be difficulties. Children can enhance the sense of “home” that volunteers try to bring to their churches and synagogues, but too many children may create so much noise and confusion that the homelike atmosphere is undermined, especially if volunteers’ children are not well disciplined or do not abide by the facility’s rules.
Another issue concerns how volunteers’ children affect guests. Sometimes children ask guests inappropriate questions, such as “why don’t you have a house?” or “what do you do with all your things?” While most people are understanding of this, it is important for children to understand that what they say can hurt or embarrass others.
Parents should also consider the effect of hosting on their children. Sometimes children, particularly younger ones, develop fears that they will become homeless and may be afraid to return to the church or synagogue. While parents will want their children to develop empathy and compassion for guests by focusing on their similarities, some children may need to concentrate on the differences between their own and guests’ families in order to feel secure that their family will not wind up homeless also.
To preclude problems, children who accompany their parents to the Affiliate should be given some orientation to Family Promise. Parents should give their children age‑appropriate information so that 1) they will be unlikely to do or say things that would be offensive or hurtful to guest families; and 2) they will understand the program and the problem well enough so that they will not develop unreasonable fears or other problems as a result of participating.
Parents’ Guidelines for Involving Their Children in the Affiliate
- Thoughtfully consider whether or not your children should accompany you to your volunteer shift. Do not bring children simply because no babysitter is available. Make decisions about your child’s participation first and then plan ahead.
- Contact the coordinator or person who schedules your shift to determine the number and ages of children (both guests’ and volunteers’) who will be present. To keep the noise and activity level within reasonable bounds, there should not be a large number of volunteer children at any one time. Having an entire religious education class or other group of children come in at once is not recommended, unless there is a special activity requiring a group. Avoid any situations in which guests may feel like they’re “on parade.”
- Be conscious of the effect of your children on guests and guests’ children. Don’t let your child wear expensive clothes or the latest fashion fad to the program. Don’t bring toys or games to play with that you intend to take home with you. On the other hand, a child may want to give some of his or her things away as gifts to guests’ children. This should be monitored so that 1) the child does not get carried away; and 2) guest children are not stigmatized by not being able to give material gifts in return.
- Recognize that children will pick up on your cues in response to the program. That is, if you are comfortable and at ease, your children are more likely to adapt easily. Parents should have received adequate training and feel comfortable in their volunteer roles. If such is not the case, parents should discuss their concerns with the coordinator or seek further training. Older adolescents may also be interested in participating in the Affiliate volunteer training program.
- Be aware of your children’s response to the program. Talk things over, but do not insist on their participation if they are resistant.
Suggestions for Helping Children Understand the Affiliate
Birth – 3 years old: It is not recommended that parents bring infants or very young children to the Affiliate. They require too much of their parent’s attention and are not able to engage in independent play.
3 – 5: Some children between ages three and five may be outgoing enough to play with other children without constant supervision, but parents’ discretion is advised. If preschoolers do accompany their parents to the Affiliate, parents may want to say something like, “We’re going to our (church/synagogue) to visit with some families there.” (Of course, parents will want to answer, as simply as possible, any questions that do come up.) Parents must be sure that children know how to behave properly and understand the facility’s rules about where they can play and what toys, games, and activities are available to them.
6 – 10: Six to ten year olds will probably have many questions: why are they homeless? who helps? why doesn’t the bank lend them money? how do the kids go to school? Children in this age group usually relate easily to other kids and will have fun playing together. Parents should prepare them beforehand by telling them, in simple terms, what it means to be homeless and how the program helps homeless families. What is most important is that children understand that families who stay in the Affiliate are special “guests” of their congregation and not “the homeless.” Children of this age can understand that guests are living through a difficult time and that they may be sensitive about their situation. Teach children not to ask the guests personal questions or to talk at length about their own home and/or possessions. Tell children that you will discuss their questions, feelings and reactions at home, and make time available to do so.
11 – 14: Preteens and young teens tend to be self‑conscious; they may feel embarrassed and/or sad for the guests and feel awkward relating to guests of the same age. However, they can make a wonderful contribution if their feelings and questions are dealt with. They are old enough to help with homework or organize activities for younger children and not too old to enjoy playing. They may also help with table setting and clearing, or Sunday setup and cleanup. Parents should discuss the program, the problem of homelessness, and their volunteer responsibilities with their children of this age and, once home, encourage their questions and reactions.
Adolescents (15 – 18): Adolescents may exhibit tremendous idealism and strive to know the best way to help. Parents will want to discuss all aspects of Family Promise with their teenagers. Adolescents can be a real asset to the program, especially if they exhibit the intelligence and maturity to handle projects and activities independently. They can supervise and entertain younger children, plan and organize special activities, events and holiday drives, and help with program needs like setup, cleanup, and the end of week takedown.
Respecting the guests and meeting their needs is the number one priority of Family Promise. Often, volunteers’ children can play an important role in achieving that goal, and they are welcome program participants.
To ensure an enriching experience for both guest and volunteer families, parents will want to 1) prepare their children before they visit the Affiliate; and 2) follow-up by giving children the time and attention they need to discuss their Family Promise experience.
This brochure is made possible by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Family Promise also extends special thanks to the volunteers and their children who contributed their thoughts on this subject, and to Barbara Aaronoff, Ed.D and Jill M. Pfitzenmayer, Director of Child Psychiatry at Jersey City Medical Center, for their professional guidance on this project.
71 Summit Ave.
Summit NJ 07901