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Animal Defenders of Westchester
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PLANTING THE SEEDS For an 11-Year-Old, Learning by Doing Good

Published in the NY TIMES, November 13, 2006

STUDIES have shown that volunteering is a learned behavior. So I figured it was time for my 11-year-old son, Andrew, to put down his PlayStation and start learning.

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A Family Experience (November 13, 2006) Andrew’s a great child; he’s intelligent, personable and polite to adults. But motivation? Not his strong suit. And admittedly, his dad’s own contributions to society have required little more exertion than writing some checks to charity. So when I suggested that he and I pursue volunteer opportunities together, he was suspicious. “What are we going to do?” he asked, warily.

Good question. Helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast is not an option for someone who has to be home by 6 and in bed by 9.

We scoured possibilities among nonprofit groups in our part of New York on Long Island. Most of the places we called wanted to meet us first. Fair enough. But they had limited office hours, usually 8:30 to 4:30, weekdays. Hardly conducive to children, like Andrew, who have school followed by extracurricular activities. Others were flaky: one small charity we reached was an animal shelter that a nice woman told us she was running. She said we would be welcome to come and help. The next day, a not-so-nice woman from the same shelter called. Who were we, and what did we want? We explained that we had spoken to the first woman. “Well,” said the second caller, huffily. “She and I are in court.”

There’s that charitable spirit in action!

Eventually, we found three organizations that wanted us. Luckily, they represented a cross section of causes — the environment, animals and a soup kitchen. All of them inspired us to want to come back and keep helping in the future.

Our first father-and-son volunteer experience was at the Garden City Bird Sanctuary. Despite its pastoral name, the place is basically a sump — a county storm-water basin that, 10 years ago, was strewn with trash and served as a hangout for youngsters whose interests did not include volunteering. Led by a local resident named Rob Alvey, who mobilized the support of his neighbors and groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, it has been transformed into a nine-acre nature preserve.

On a crisp Sunday afternoon in October, Andrew and I joined Mr. Alvey and about 40 other parents, children and young people, including students from Adelphi University, for one of the sanctuary’s regularly scheduled cleanup days. My son liked Mr. Alvey right away, partly because he wore a jacket embroidered with his name and the title Bird Brain underneath his name. Mr. Alvey, who really is a brain, works in a “day” job as a geologist with the Environmental Protection Agency. He talked to my son like a good teacher, explaining things as we went along. After Andrew helped the Adelphi students with weeding, Mr. Alvey showed us a pristine patch of prairie grass on the top of a hill. When told that this grass once covered much of Long Island, Andrew — who tends toward the cartoon-dramatic — reacted by opening his mouth in shocked astonishment, then pretended to faint and rolled down the hill.

Mr. Alvey laughed. A sense of humor, I learned, is important in volunteering, especially with children.

The next weekend found us at the Little Shelter in Huntington, where dogs and cats abounded. After an orientation, Andrew and I were given an important job: unwanted or stray kittens are constantly dropped off at the shelter. After being checked by a veterinarian, they are put in rooms together, where they learn to interact with humans, crucial if they’re going to find an adoptive home.

Under the supervision of a longtime volunteer, Bob Lobou, a retired university librarian, Andrew and I went to work in the “kitten socialization rooms.” This involved playing with kittens and trying to draw out the shy ones in particular. Andrew demonstrated surprising patience. (He also bonded with a shy black polydactyl kitten, and at this writing is still lobbying for its adoption.)

Our final volunteering opportunity was at the Mary Brennan soup kitchen in Hempstead, part of the Interfaith Nutrition Network. Here, 350 people are fed every day. I wondered how privileged Andrew would react to a place that catered to poor people, and braced for grim surroundings. Instead, arriving on a late Friday afternoon, we found a bright, clean facility and a warm welcome from the manager, Jean Victor, who had the perfect job for us: bagging toys that had been collected for the soup kitchen’s Christmas party. Andrew rightfully assumed that between the two of us, he was the expert. I was relegated to bag man, as he climbed over games, stuffed animals, dolls and action figures, sorting them into piles, based on gender and type of toy.

We worked two hours and packed 15 large bags. Mr. Victor was impressed. As we left, Stephan Robinson, the soup kitchen’s social worker, shook my son’s hand. “Andrew, you’re welcome to come back here any time.”

During the drive home, my son put his portable PlayStation on pause and spoke thoughtfully. “It’s really nice that there are people like that,” he said. “I want to go back and help them out again.”

Maybe, I thought, Andrew is ready to help change the world. Now if we could only get him to clean up his room.

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