Mama Madison: Volunteers? Anyone?

Bringing the spirit of helping into the new year

Hard as I (pretend to) try, I just can't seem to make a single one of my New Year's resolutions stick. As of today, things are already on the downhill slide, and I know I probably won't be eating five servings of fruits or vegetables a day (don't tell me it's five of both, please), exercising more regularly, or keeping up with the ever-Sisyphean task of folding laundry by months' end.

The only New Year's resolution I've ever managed to keep much past February was the commitment I made to lowered expectations back in 2008. I've really rocked that one.

But my inability to stick to a self-improvement regime has in no way kept me from asking my kids to consider what goals we should set as a family for the new year. And each and every January 1st we all sit down to dinner and come up with a group resolution.

This year we are all going to volunteer more.

I'll admit, I've struggled with the best way to get my kids involved in service activities in the past. Sure, they've grudgingly done what little volunteer work I've required them to do, but it's always been done out of a sense of obligation (and not wanting me to yell) as opposed to genuine altruism. I guess I had always hoped that I'd have the kind of kids that bounced out of bed on a snowy morning to help the elderly next-door-neighbors shovel out from the storm before settling into a Simpson's marathon. Instead, I need to threaten to delete the fifteen-plus Halloween episodes they have stored on TiVo before anyone budges from the couch to do the right thing. And while my two younger kids have been accompanying me on Road Home shelter overnights for years, I think they keep returning for the gooey cinnamon rolls fellow volunteers always bake for breakfast. I was genuinely hoping bringing them along would help them develop compassion for homeless families, and it has to some degree. But what they've developed even more of is the desire to play video games all evening with some of program's younger guests.

But this year I've decided to revisit my resolution, and lower my expectations, this time with regards to the kids' motivation for volunteering. Isn't it more important that they just do it? Do I really need to stress about why? Isn't it possible, that if they volunteer enough, even if it's for a Bar Mitzvah project, or a school service requirement, or simply because they want to eat baked goods for breakfast, that they might develop enough of a taste for it (volunteering that is) that they'll continue giving back long after they've been required to do so? I guess I've accepted that while it's might be outside forces, namely me, that is making them volunteer, the work they are doing is still valued by those on the receiving end.

My oldest and I will be kicking-starting our family resolution in just a few weeks by volunteering at Lily's Luau, an inspiring fundraising event that benefits epilepsy research at UW-Madison. I've been involved with the Luau ever since its inception and I'm psyched once again to don my grass skirt and lei to help organize the registration table. And my son is actually excited to help out with the silent auction this year. Sure I think a large part of the thrill for him is the chance to eat unlimited coconut shrimp and flirt with the cute teenaged volunteers wearing coconut bras. But I do think, in some ways, he might be starting to "get it."

Lily, for whom the event is named, is a dear family friend and fellow classmate at West High. My son has known her since the very first day we moved to Madison. He's seen her struggles and seen her triumphs when it comes to living with epilepsy. He is looking forward to hearing other people affected by seizures share their stories and watching the video that explains how the money raised that evening funds important scientific research.

It's pretty great to see his desire to get involved with a good cause ratcheted up a notch. And wouldn't it be wonderful if this were just the beginning? Perhaps this might be the year that I can shift my expectations meter, at least when it comes to my children's volunteering, from "lowered" to "great"?

It's a resolution I'd be proud to see broken.

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