Family Philanthropy, a Win Win: Positive Effects of Volunteering on Family Mental Health

Author: Maggie Nakachi, LCSW – Associate Director of Child PHP/IOP

Parenting in today’s fast-pasted world can be a challenge. It seems like there have never been so many opportunities for families to get involved in just about any activity that interests them.  With technology rapidly advancing to save us time and energy, we are granted with more leisure time and the opportunities appear endless. So why does your family seem so stressed and unfulfilled?

I hear this common thread with so many of the families that I work with, “We have so much going on, running from one activity to the next, it feels like it’s never good enough, like we are missing something.”  Every family is unique, but I find that when it comes down to the fundamentals, families are trying to give their children the best opportunities to gain the skills and experience their specific areas of interest, such as dance, sports, debate, etc.  As a culture, we want to be the best, and often kids’ activities are aimed at that, providing training to be the best of whatever you want to be.  When we find the perfect match for our kids’ specific interests, and if it can realistically fit into our own busy schedules, we appear to get locked into these specific roles aimed at specific outcomes. While all these options are wonderful, they can be a lot for families to manage.

When preoccupied with all that we have to juggle, we may forget to reflect on how fortunate we are to have these opportunities in our lives. It is easy to focus on what we are not doing and the things we do not have. By slowing down and engaging in altruistic activities, we may notice how simple acts of kindness can reap a multitude of rewards beyond what we set out to accomplish.

Volunteering is a personal passion of mine which has greatly impacted my life over the years and directly influenced my choice in career.  As a child, I started volunteering with the girl scouts, which led to Habitat for Humanity service trips in high school, and later to a career in social work.  I have volunteered with Evanston Animal Shelter for the past three years, and often have brought many friends and family members along.  It’s so rewarding to see these cats and dogs arrive at the shelter scared and weak, and then leave strong and loved by their forever families.  Helping these animals truly fills my cup, and I hope to pass this passion along to you and your family.

Volunteering can help achieve a sense of purpose and remind us of how fulfilling it is to know we have helped another; however, there are also hidden benefits that are often overlooked, and many are connected to improving mental health. Many studies have shown that volunteering can improve mood. Participating in direct service to help another person takes us out of our own thoughts and guides our focus on improving the life of another. Who wouldn’t feel good about this? The DBT skill “Wise Mind ACCEPTS” has a section that focuses on contributing as a way to get through difficult circumstances/emotions. Purposefully engaging in helping others not only gives us a sense of accomplishment, but it allows us some control over an end product that is aimed at positive outcomes no matter what mood we were in.

Volunteering can benefit your family in the following ways:

  • Connect families to others in the community, which can strengthen social and relationships skills.
  • Help families build their teamwork skills within their family unit but also strengthens their ability to work with others wanting to achieve a similar common good.
  • Bring people together who are passionate and positive about working for the betterment of their community, which can foster relationships outside of school or specific afterschool activities.

There are many agencies and community centers in Chicago and the great metropolitan area that offer volunteer opportunities for families. In the suburbs, Feed My Starving Children and Bernie’s Book Bank are popular agencies for family volunteer programs. Feed My Starving Children brings food supplies to children in need, utilizing an efficient 2 hour volunteering experience which makes a large difference in relatively short amount of time. Bernie’s Book Bank distributes books to at-risk youth in the Chicago-area. Volunteers can help sort books, donate gently used books or start your own book drive and bring to this wonderful agency. A Chicago-based robust resource for families is The Honey Comb Project, agency that works with 45 local Chicago agencies to bring a range of various volunteering opportunities, including The Anti-Cruelty Society, The Greater Chicago Food Depository, The Field Museum and Luries Children’s Hospital. They even have single session weekend volunteer experiences to fit into any busy schedule.

Volunteering does not require specific skills and often is not competitive, which can be a relief from the pressures of school and extracurricular activities. It can also be a great alternative for children who have not found a specific passion. By becoming involved by helping communities outside of your family’s usual routine, you can offer your family a new perspective on the world and help them foster empathy for others.  By making service a part of your family’s value system, your children will see their parents directly modeling the importance of this work.



Honey comb project website

Bernie’s Book Bank

Feed my starving children