Our family hoped in the minivan and headed to Clarksdale, Mississippi for spring break this year. Our desire was to be together as a family engaged intentional learning and service. Don’t get me wrong we love a fabulous beach vacation too but we want to always focus on time spent together volunteering and learning because it is central to our mission as a family.
Here are some challenges we face:
- As our kids get older they have more commitments (sports, work, and friends) so it can be challenging to commit to something on a weekly/monthly basis like we did when they were younger.
- Our kids span from teenager to 8 years old and finding one activity we can all do together can be very challenging with the requirements of many organizations.
- We truly want to HELP and SERVE- not just feel better about ourselves or fall into the pitfalls of many short term type service opportunities. (I have much to say about this (after living in East Africa & seeing first hand the real harm short term trips can have) AND I am always seeking to learn more about meaningful engagement.
Yet even with the challenges of “service trips” Jason and I were both changed by participating in them when we were younger and we want this experience for our kids. We acknowledge there is much to learn AND we will still pursue meaningful volunteering and learning.
Here are some things I recommend that have been helpful for our family in creating opportunities like this:
- Embracing that volunteering is mainly about learning and not about us making some dramatic impact: let’s humbly engage and spend time learning and reflecting. For us practically this looked like spending time learning about the Mississippi Delta in a historic view (we did this through listening to narratives, podcasts, & just talking through and asking the kids questions about history- although let’s be real; I’m a history nerd and I am sure at certain points they tune me out). We also stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on our road trip to spend time actively learning more about the past and ongoing struggle for justice in the US context.
- Partner with folks doing long term work or well established organizations with leaders FROM the community they serve: Do not expect to dictate or decide what work should happen. Seek to be a humble learner, not an outsider deeming what “should” happen and challenge “easy” solutions offered. This was key for us- we went with the desire to serve in whatever capacity we could under the leadership of folks that have been doing this work for over 2 decades. We volunteered for the Clarksdale Area Fuller Center for Housing and you can learn more or support their work here. These were dear friends that we knew from college that had a profound impact on us and we wanted to reconnect in real life and allow our kids to learn from their wisdom and faithfulness. We processed as a family and asked tough questions when any of our kids presented “easy” answers- this is SO KEY because our empathy and compassion can only be increased when we encounter people as people made in God’s image and not problems to be solved.
- Focus on assets not deficits: We talk a lot as a family about what others have to teach us. That while poverty is a very real challenge and justice issue there are NOT easy answers in many cases and there so many assets in the communities we were visiting and we want to be curious and learn. Our gracious hosts allowed us to meet some folks at a dinner that were Habitat Home partners that also now work in various aspects of the organization and as community leaders and they were gracious enough to share some of their stories. We tried to focus on listening & learning without requiring extra labor (although we acknowledge there is always labor involved in sharing stories). We also talked about not sharing stories or pictures (without permission) that are not ours to share. This time was VERY impactful for our kids. We offer what skills we had, along with unskilled labor and manpower, and were flexible- this involved some photo opportunities for me as well.
- Pray & Process Together: We checked in and asked God to guide us and help us and sometimes check our attitudes. We also asked the kids each questions about how they were processing the differences around them and the people they were meeting- these conversations were so helpful in seeing how God was speaking to each one of them differently. A lot of abstract issues become more real as you see them.
- Learn & have fun together: Let’s be real- if kids are not having some fun they just will not connect and enjoy and learning IS FUN so we want to also embrace those moments to bond and laugh together. We had some clean up projects and had plenty of snacks and “rewards” (pocket change to head to the corner store- which was great also because they made some fast friends and got to play with kids in the neighborhood we were staying in). Our friends also recommended a local Coffee shop Meraki Roasting Co., (see more below) with a mission in town that we stopped at daily and even let the kids get special treats to reward their hard work (ahem, some of them worked harder than others 🙂 We also were realistic and took breaks (even a Tik Tok dance break) and made sure we were laughing and having fun even when kids were tired (hard work is GOOOOOD for kids AND so is rewarding them for pushing themselves a bit). We also sought out local adventures like different foods (Kool-Aid pickles- Jemar Tisby made us do it!) and tasted what was offered to us- hospitality is key and you learn a lot from trying different things- it gives you more of a local feel.
Experiencing bonding over meaningful work in the world is a special gift and worth the effort it takes to make it happen. We are absolutely still learning and hoping to continue to volunteer together as a family in meaningful ways. If this resonated with you please share and comment:
How do you serve together? I would love to learn from you!
You can see more of the images I created in partnership with Spring Initiative and Clarksdale Fuller Center for Housing on Hawa Images.
On our drive down we stopped in Memphis, Tennessee for some sightseeing & had to hit Beale Street.
We stayed at the Fuller Center volunteer dorms in Clarksdale, MS.
You can listen to a podcast with interviews and some background on this organization here.
We also loved daily coffee breaks at Meraki Roasting Co., more about the coffee shop: “Every day ambitious young people come to work at Meraki Coffee Roasters to learn to roast coffee while building skills that will help them come closer to finding their God-given calling. While we are making excellent coffee, we teach young people in Clarksdale what it means to work with the Meraki ideals: to put soul, creativity, and love into their work. Through small batch roasting, Meraki Coffee Roasters produces excellent coffee.”
One of our favorite things about traveling as a family is that it gets us ALL out of our routine and comfort zones and allows for adventures together. These images of Jason with our oldest make me so joyful. also ALWAYS get recommendations from friends locally for hangs- this was a coffee shop in Memphis Comeback Coffee. (thanks Emily!)
We also stopped in Memphis on our way back to Chicagoland to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. This museum was built around the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King spent his last night before he was murdered. His legacy and the continuing fight for Civil Rights is something every American needs to reflect on and this visit was important for our family.