Volunteering brings Lowcountry families together

Anita Antoinette, who has a long history of volunteering, counts among her duties organizing the Chicora Farmers Market in North Charleston.

Like more than a quarter of the American population, Anita Antoinette of North Charleston regularly makes time to help others, and her daughter is learning by her example.

About 60.8 million people volunteered at least once between September 2006 and September 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. That's 26.2 percent of the population.

With an average volunteer rate of 28.6 percent between 2004 and 2006, South Carolina ranked 31st compared with other states, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service's report "Volunteering in America: 2007 State Trends and Rankings in Civic Life." Utah was No. 1 with a rate of 45.9 percent, and Nevada ranked last at 17.5 percent.

The average number of volunteer hours in South Carolina was 37.1 hours per year. Often, Antoinette gives that many hours in just a week's time.

She has participated in walks for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Charleston and the Lowcountry American Heart Walk. She has given her time to the Medical University Children's Hospital, Habitat for Humanity and the School Improvement Council at North Charleston High School.

"I have a list," she says. "Every month I volunteer somewhere. I always have."

Just this week, she finished a one-year, full-time volunteer commitment through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, which places workers with nonprofit organizations working to fight poverty. Antoinette worked as a development and public relations intern at Metanoia Freedom School in North Charleston.

When she started volunteering in the Charleston area more than a decade ago, "it was because it was something to do," she says. "I was new to Charleston. I had no family here. It was a way to get out and learn about the city. Now, I do it because I love it."

She also has instilled the community service spirit in her daughter, Sharree Cartwright.

The 18-year-old Trident Technical College student has a reputation for giving of her time, too.

"People would call her and ask her to volunteer," Antoinette says.

Cartwright has logged hours in "sweat equity" toward the family's Habitat for Humanity house, volunteered at the Jewish Community Center and served with her mother on North Charleston High's School Improvement Council committee. She currently spends her afternoons working with students at Metanoia.

"She started volunteering with me when she was 5 or 6," Antoinette says. "I would say to people, 'I want to volunteer, but I have a little girl. If I come and supervise her, and if there are problems and you ask us to leave, we'll leave.' We volunteered at different events and, as a result, when she was old enough to make the decision herself, she became a volunteer."

Sally Burnett, community volunteer coordinator for Trident United Way, says it's common for kids who volunteer to continue doing so into adulthood.

"Studies show that youth involved in community service are more likely to be involved in community service as adults, and they have a stronger sense of community," Burnett says, adding that it's "rewarding and constructive and brings families together."

In fact, participants in a 2002 study by the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment called "Family Volunteering: An Exploratory Study of the Impact on Families," identified several benefits of volunteering as a family, including:

-- It brings the family closer together.

-- Values system are strengthened by volunteering; children see parents are involved.

-- Families get something back from volunteering; it makes them feel good.

-- It has benefits for youths, such as helping with job and college applications.

-- Children see how fortunate they are.

In addition, when asked about benefits of volunteering together, adults also said it makes their children focus on someone other than themselves.

Marsha Alterman of Charleston, who started volunteering when she was in middle school, agrees that she has seen many of those benefits when volunteering with her daughters, Lily, 13, and Rosie, 11.

"My whole thing is, I know what volunteering has done for me," says Alterman, the Jewish life student adviser at the College of Charleston. "And with my daughters going to a private school, I want them to realize how fortunate they are, and that there are so many people out there in need. You don't have to be a straight-A student or a genius to make a difference."

Each year for their Hanukkah party, the Altermans ask guests to bring dog food to donate to shelters, instead of exchanging presents. They have served food at Crisis Ministries and hidden Easter eggs at a women's shelter. They've helped seniors play bingo and Special Olympics athletes compete.

"Their friends went away on spring break, and they went to the homeless shelter," Alterman says of her children.

Although she understands the reasons, Alterman is sometimes frustrated that her kids aren't old enough to volunteer at some places without her.

"I want them to be able to do it on their own," she says. "I don't want it to have to be my responsibility."

At the same time, Alterman says, there are creative ways to get around such restrictions.

When Ashley Hall did a Habitat for Humanity project, students who were not old enough to officially participate instead painted picnic tables, planters and birdhouses at a different location. "They weren't on the work site, but they did something for the house," she says.

She hopes events such as Trident United Way's Tricounty Youth Service Day, which was held Saturday, will help businesses realize that youngsters are eager to help.

"I would imagine that for many of the kids that came out for Youth Service Day last year, that was it for them as volunteers," says Alterman, who helped organize last year's event as a Trident United Way employee. "It's not because of lack of desire, but because of lack of available opportunities."

Burnett agrees, and adds that she hopes the event "opens more and more doors for young volunteers."

Volunteering helps children feel valued, acquire new skills and develop compassion and understanding for others, according to the Web site The Volunteer Family, thevolunteerfamily.org.

Alterman says she wants to expose her daughters to segments of society they might not otherwise know about. Their experiences have taught them not to be afraid of the homeless, the aged or the disabled. They also have learned that people don't always choose their circumstances.

"I took them to the homeless shelter," she says. "I told them that when they were serving the food, it's important to look people in the eye. The people were saying, 'Thank you,' and my daughters were blown away by that, that something as easy as, 'Do you want a roll or a muffin?' was making a difference in people's lives."

Who volunteers

-- 26.2 percent of the population.

-- 29.3 percent of women.

-- 22.9 percent of men.

-- 30.3 percent of people ages 35-54 (most likely to volunteer).

-- 17.7 percent of people in their 20s (least likely).

-- 27.9 percent of whites.

-- 18.2 percent of blacks.

-- 17.7 percent of Asians.

-- 13.5 percent of Hispanics.

-- 31.9 percent of married people.

-- 19.2 percent of never-married people.

-- 33.7 percent of parents with kids under 18.

-- 23.2 percent of parents with kids over 18.

-- 28.3 percent of those who are employed.

-- 22.3 percent of those who are not employed.

Family volunteers

-- Call a family meeting to consider family volunteering. Make sure everyone, no matter how young, participates in the discussion.

-- List the volunteering each family member is doing. Would the others like to help with these?

-- Allow everyone to suggest a community problem of concern. If some ideas intrigue the entire family, explore what organizations are working on these.