Amanda Greenberger, 17, used to sleep until noon on Saturdays, then maybe sit around, eat potato chips, channel surf through the TV and, at the end of the day, wish she'd done something else.
Then last year, she and her father, Martin, who live in West Los Angeles, were galvanized by the rioting they saw on TV. Like many Angelenos, they wanted to do something to help. Unlike many, they found a way to do it as a family.
Together, they signed up with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that helps build low-cost housing for needy families. Now Amanda says: "When you come home from a day working on a house, you're really tired. But it's a good kind of tired. You know you helped make a difference."
She's proud to go with her father. "This is something we connect on, things we both value and that we both care enough about to put our effort into it. It's something valuable. You can point to it and say, wow, my dad and I helped build that house. It just feels really good."
Over the past five years, more family members have been volunteering together, according to the Independent Sector, a national coalition of nonprofit agencies in Washington, D.C. They say they are trying to reconnect with their communities and one another.
"You can't sit around and watch TV all the time or go to malls all the time," said Michael Glaser of West Los Angeles, who has volunteered for several years with his wife, Rise, and children, Marc, 9, and Tiffany, 11. "With what's going on with the economy the last few years, you don't have the money to do all that shopping. (With volunteering) you can do things to help other people. You get a lot more joy out of what you're doing."
Together, the Glaser family has served meals at homeless shelters, provided child care for homeless families, worked at KCET pledge drives and planted trees. "We still go back and look at the trees to see how they're growing," he said.
Family volunteering not only helps the community but also strengthens family communication and helps pass on positive values to younger family members, said Janet Harrison, director of the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles.
In fact, some people believe the benefits of family volunteering are so great to both families and the community that they are working to build a national movement.
Family Matters, a fledgling, $1.5-million national initiative sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation, aims to formalize on a national level what families like the Greenbergers and Glasers have been doing on their own. Virginia Austin, national project director of the Washington-based program said that it's almost a cliche to talk about the disintegration of the American family, and community service is no magical solution. But volunteering can give families a sense of connectedness and purpose, she said. And passed down from generation to generation, family volunteering can jump-start an ongoing cycle for social change.
"It addresses the vacuum that comes from families not working together on farms or for a common agenda in an urban setting. It really addresses the fragmentation of the family unit," Austin said.
So far, Family Matters has started to mobilize families for community service in six areas: Los Angeles, New York, Appalachia, Minneapolis, Houston and Atlanta.
The local program, operated by the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles, is expected to start this fall to recruit, train and refer family volunteers to about 30 community groups seeking volunteers in East, West and South-Central Los Angeles.
Harrison said the program has adopted a broad, non-traditional definition of family. "We don't look at this as a Dan Quayle family situation. We are defining family as any group of two or more people who consider themselves to be a family. A stepmother and a stepson, an uncle and niece, a grandparent and grandchild, an unmarried couple, a group of people who live together."
Family volunteering can especially benefit single-parent families or non-custodial parents looking for alternatives to unsupervised TV watching--shown in a recent Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development study to be the most popular way for teen-agers to spend their free time. It can also help middle-age children find common activities with their senior parents.
Through the Volunteer Center or other groups such as Habitat for Humanity or Rhapsody in Green, families can find age-appropriate volunteer activities that include removing graffiti, planting trees, visiting invalids, painting murals, cleaning up schools, baby-sitting for parents who are going to school or teaching people to read.