Employee Spotlight: Volunteering as a Family Offers Lessons in Compassion and Kindness
Each month, we shine a light on a Points of Light employee who is making a difference in their community. These stories of service highlight the individual volunteer efforts of our dedicated staff, what motivated them to get involved and how service has inspired them.
As senior manager of our global team, Andrea Thomas can frequently be found on the phone, speaking with member organizations of the Points of Light global network, who are working to solve problems through service in their communities around the world. Andrea, who has worked on the Points of Light team in Atlanta for more than two years, helps promote and facilitate peer-to-peer learning between global network members.
Off the phone, Andrea and her family – daughter, Amanda, and husband, Steve – are active volunteers with Hands On Atlanta. Volunteer service has become a tradition for their family and they participate in a variety of activities, with particular interest in projects that benefit senior citizens or at-risk children. Andrea frequently looks to the resources provided by generationOn, Points of Light’s youth service division, for project ideas and inspiration. For seven years, the family has held the holiday tradition of serving with Operation Christmas Child, an organization that sends shoe boxes packaged with toys, personal care items and other goods to children in need around the world.
We sat down with Andrea to learn more about her service with HandsOn Atlanta and Operation Christmas Child and what volunteering with her family means to her.
1. What was your first volunteer experience?
I attended a Catholic school growing up in Brazil and one time the priests took our class to visit an orphanage. I don’t remember so much about the volunteer activity, but I remember how much I enjoyed the experience. It was a very poor orphanage. I remember vaguely interacting and playing with the children. I also remember this little boy with no shirt, very talkative, smiling all the time and children all over us! They seemed really happy with our visit. It was very heartwarming.
2. What inspired you to make volunteering a family activity?
Initially, my husband. Steve has always been a very generous person and is a lifelong volunteer. He was the one who introduced me to HandsOn Atlanta when I first moved here. Thanks to that, I had the honor to meet and work with some of the brightest and big-hearted people I’ve ever met, who also inspired me with their lifelong stories of service. After my daughter was born, I would say generationOn (Points of Light's youth service division) was a great source of inspiration. I cannot get enough of their stories of young children taking action to change the world. The stories of those families really inspired me.
3. Why do you think family volunteerism is important?
Volunteering is something we all like to do, so it is a great opportunity for us to do something together as a family, to learn about each other and to bond. Also, it is a great way for us parents to walk the talk. Children learn not only through what we tell them but also through what we do. We live in a world where everyone talks too much and does too little, so when we volunteer as a family, we see it as an opportunity to put our faith into action and practice the values we want to nurture and develop in our family, such as compassion, humility, kindness, gentleness and self-control. It is never too early to teach the importance of service to a young child. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” – that proverb is our motto!
4. Tell us more about your family’s volunteer work with HandsOn Atlanta and Operation Christmas Child and how you became involved?
I worked at HandsOn Atlanta for nine years and while working there I learned about Family Service Saturdays. We love their projects! They are meaningful, super fun and family friendly. We did many projects together, from passing out adoption fliers for a pet rescue, to making holiday ornaments for nursing home residents, to packing back-to-school kits for children from low-income families. Sometimes I get to coordinate the projects and that’s when I have more fun. I love that I can come up with a project idea and HandsOn Atlanta is so efficient to coordinate with their partners and make it happen! During these projects, we also get to meet a lot of families from all over town and it is great. We get to meet the parents, the children serve together and that is what community is about!
We learned about Operation Christmas Child at church – this project has become one of our family holiday traditions. Every year we get four boxes, one for each family member – including our dog Julie – and we go shopping for presents. My daughter always chooses to shop for a teenage girl. She is all about girl power! This project teaches her so many lessons. One time she bought something that she wanted to keep for herself, but of course, she had to give it away. There were some tears, but it is important to learn how to put others ahead of yourself. We also write letters for the children we are sending the gifts to, in the hope that one day they will write back to us. We also track our boxes to see where in the world they going. When we find out which country, we talk about it – where it is located, what it means to live there. The good and the bad. We want Amanda to learn that bad circumstances can happen to anyone and they should not define who we are.
5. How has generationOn played a role in your family’s volunteer service?
generationOn is empowering; I use their resources every time I am coordinating a family service project with HandsOn Atlanta or with our bible group. It is a great asset for families interested in volunteering with friends and family. Because my child and her friends are very young, we usually choose an activity that involves some sort of crafts so they can fully participate. I always like to come up with different ideas for projects – generationOn’s DIY project ideas are a great source of inspiration.
I also love their service learning pieces. They are very well designed. The content is great and age appropriate. It is great to have those resources to share during the projects. The children should enjoy volunteering, not only because they are having fun writing and decorating cards with stickers; the joy should come from knowing why you are helping, from understanding the importance of lifting others and being there for those in need. I am glad generationOn has those resources available to help us talk about difficult issues with our children.
6. What does your daughter enjoy most about volunteering? Does she have a favorite service activity?
I don’t think Amanda has a favorite service activity; but like other children, she likes new experiences. She enjoys the project activities, meeting other volunteers, learning about the people we are helping and meeting them when it is possible. On Thanksgiving two years ago, we volunteered at AG Rhodes Rehabilitation Center. There we met a 100-year-old lady who used to be a piano teacher. My daughter plays the piano and the two spent a lot of time talking about their common interest. It was amazing to watch and hear their conversation. They were about 94 years apart, but the connection was there. Amanda still talks about that lady. She said she likes to volunteer because she likes to help people.
7. What's been the most rewarding part of your volunteer work?
The feeling that you can make a difference in the life of someone else is very empowering. When you volunteer, you stop thinking about yourself, your problems and your needs to think about others. It is funny how I always feel more creative after a good volunteer experience and more confident about everything else! I always come out with at least two to three ideas to start a social enterprise or an app. Maybe one day! Volunteering makes you feel empowered and hopeful.
8. Has your experience with volunteer service influenced and/or affected your career? How?
Absolutely. Before moving to the United States, I used to be a professor and corporate trainer. At one of the universities where I used to teach at, I actually had the chance to launch and coordinate the first volunteer program in our region for the university’s undergraduate students, but I never thought about working in a volunteer center. Because I don’t believe in coincidence, I am confident this change of path happened for a reason. Working at HandsOn Atlanta opened my eyes to many issues that I used to ignore, or at least not pay enough attention to. It also taught me that volunteering should be part of everyone’s life regardless of the career you are in. Looking beyond your own background is everyone’s responsibility. Initially, I thought I would stay with HandsOn Atlanta for only a couple years, helping them to structure their skills-based volunteering program. But, I ended up staying for nine years before moving to Points of Light, where I am today and where I have the pleasure to work with the most amazing changemakers and social leaders from all around the world. Hearing their ideas, witnessing the impact of their work and growth is very inspiring and just brings me so much hope. The world is messy but it does not have to be.
9. What advice do you have for others who are looking for ways to get involved with their families?
Don’t wait for tomorrow or for the right time, just start. There are great websites out there to connect you with opportunities and to give you the resources to create your own project. Also, when searching for a project, try to involve your entire family, so you can pick your next activity together. Another thing we started doing in our house is the “meaningful playdate.” When children come over to our home to play, we try to incorporate a one-hour service project into the schedule. The last time we did that, the children wrote cards to seniors living in a nursing home. Don’t worry about starting slowly. We are not “every weekend” volunteers either but we do our best to serve when we can.
10. What’s next for you as a volunteer?
This past Spring, I had the chance to read some of the profiles of the women nominated for the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Canadian Edition and I was blown away by Cheryl Perera. She created a website to harness youth power, spreading awareness and raising funds to help support the victims of sexual tourism and trafficking. One of the ideas that I am thinking about these days, is to create a focus group in my hometown of Fortaleza, Brazil, to discuss how can we engage and empower families to raise children to become servant leaders – approaching leadership as an opportunity to serve others. In Brazil, we are facing unprecedented levels of corruption. People are losing hope in their leaders and becoming distrustful of human sincerity and integrity. We don’t want this to happen. If there is a way to start a movement to inspire, empower and mobilize families to take action in building the future generation of servant leaders, I would love to play a role.