The summer before my son's senior year of high school, I sure did not feel like my best self as a mom. There's nothing like parenting a teenager to upend any insights you thought you had figured out about raising humans. For a little extra spice, my son is also on the autism spectrum. He amazes me every day, but he needs help to take other people's perspectives and deal with changes in his routine (oh hey there, puberty, you routine-disrupting doofus).
Lately, our house had been full of conflict, and I'd been full of anxiety, resentment, and so much guilt for not being better at the most important job I do. Long story short, I had to figure out something to turn things around for both of us and give him some life skills at the same time. I decided to sign us both up to volunteer several hours a week at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank in our area.
A Little Bit of Dread for Our First Shift
I've got to be honest: I wasn't exactly looking forward to our first shift. I already have a job, after all, and this was sort of like taking a second one. Plus, hanging out with my kid had meant a lot of conflict for a long time now. While I knew I needed to break that association for both of us, I didn't really know how. I figured there would be a lot of fighting in the car on the way there and back.
I can't say I expected him to love it either. This is a kid who cherishes his free time and isn't exactly motivated by much of anything. Truth is, I was figuring it would be a bit of a disaster all the way around. They do say that if you keep your expectations low, you'll always be pleasantly surprised.
A Normal Day at the Food Bank
Our expectations were exceeded the moment we walked through the door for our first shift. The staff welcomed us and showed us how to sign in and make name tags and where to wait for instructions. We were instantly at ease.
As a food bank, Second Harvest gets these gigantic food donations from all over the area and repackages them to distribute to food shelves in all the neighboring towns. It's a busy place with 50 or more people volunteering at a time and literally tons of food passing through the warehouse every day.
Volunteers do quality control and package food in smaller quantities for the people who need it. Aside from an occasional super gross job (like that smelly day we had to sort good onions from rotten ones), it's actually fun work.
Second Harvest Heartland has distributed over 113 million meals to over 813,000 people in their area. It's a really incredible organization that makes a real difference in the world, and it's easy to get involved.
We Get More Than We Give
When I chose a place to volunteer, I didn't want our little experiment to be a burden on the organization; we needed to be helping out and not doing this for purely selfish reasons. Even though we do feel like we're contributing, it turns out we get way more than we give. Here are some of the things we've gained from volunteering.
Choosing a place to volunteer with a teenager can be a little tricky. A food bank is a great option because you can work together and try out different tasks, and it doesn't require tons of training or previous experience.
1. He's Getting Real Job Skills
Bagging groceries or bussing tables may not be super fun, but they do teach teenagers a lot about how to be a good employee. Even though my kid isn't ready for a part-time job, he's learning a lot of the skills he needs for one. At Second Harvest, we show up for our shift at the assigned time, get instructions about what we're going to do, work for a while, and then clean up when we're told to.
At first, my son whispered to me during the instructions and watched the clock the entire shift. He didn't know that he should stay busy or take the initiative to help at clean-up time. But after just a few shifts, he was offering to help people near him and challenging himself to work faster and harder. Even better, I could tell he felt good about building his skills.
2. We're Both Improving Our Social Skills
Most of my life, I've dealt with crippling social anxiety, and the idea of getting together with a bunch of strangers twice a week sounded daunting. Add to that, social skills have always been a little challenging for my son. He goes to a fantastic school where most of the kids are on the spectrum, but that means he doesn't have a ton of experience dealing with so-called "neurotypicals." Volunteering helps us both.
When you're standing next to a giant bin of potatoes with a few other people, it's a really good place to practice small talk. At first, I was very quiet and my son tried to make somewhat random and vaguely dark jokes to strangers. Now, after a few months, we are both way better at striking up a conversation and casually chatting with other volunteers.
3. He Feels Useful
As a mom, I pretty much always feel useful (too useful sometimes), but it didn't really occur to me that my son might need to be useful too. He has chores around the house, but I think he thought of those more as a duty than a contribution.
Volunteering has given him the chance to be of real service to other people, and I can tell that matters a lot to him. We keep track of how many meals we pack each day, and he is always trying to beat his previous record.
4. I Feel Like I'm Helping Him for the First Time in Years
When my son was tiny and started missing milestones, I sprang into action and did a ton of therapy and special programs with him. I was worried about him, but I felt like I was doing things that would really help. As he's gotten older, I just haven't felt that helpful. I do a lot of nagging, but neither of us experience that as therapeutic.
Now, after every shift at the food bank, we talk about the interactions we had. I can explain why people reacted a certain way or how he could ask a question to start a conversation with someone. I can give him positive feedback when he works extra hard, and I see real progress.
5. Having a Shared Goal Brings Us Closer
Anyone with a teenager will tell you that it's pretty common for teens and parents to feel like adversaries. My son even characterizes me as his "enemy" at times (which is a lot of talk for someone who intentionally hides my stuff to make me mad). And I do see him as the opposition too when we're arguing about homework or hygiene.
Volunteering together puts us on the same team — literally and figuratively. We are signed up as an actual team, and every time we sign in for a shift, we do that with the team name "Eian and Mom." Even more importantly, working together toward a common goal lets us feel like a team, too. We're fighting hunger together instead of fighting each other.
6. I Get to See Him as Capable and Confident
When I first started thinking about volunteering together, I figured it would help my son learn some job skills and social skills for his transition to being an adult. He's not going to be ready for independence for a while, and the truth is, that really scares me. It's mostly beyond my control, and I'll admit that as an anxious person, I have some trouble with things that are beyond my control.
But when I see my son chatting with other volunteers, stepping in to help move heavy equipment, or asking a shift leader for help or clarification, I feel hopeful for his future and proud of his present. He's growing because of this experience, and I'm really honored to be a part of that.
Feel Good About Helping Others
Our volunteering experience has been valuable to us for so many reasons, and I would absolutely recommend this to any parent and teen. No matter why you choose to start volunteering, you'll get so much more out of it that you expect and feel good about helping others along the way.