How do we get our children to pay attention to what really matters when they are surrounded by so much stuff? That was my question in my last blog post.
I was inspired a few months ago by someone who gave me the answer. After Hurricane Sandy hit my hometown of Queens last October, Nan Shipley, a woman I knew peripherally over the years through our kids, starting appearing in my inbox several times a day.
She was sending email blasts from the Rockaways, asking her hundreds of friends and acquaintances for flashlights, brooms, books, and, most importantly, hope for the thousands out there who lost almost everything they owned.
A sampling from November 5: "I have spent the last three days in Belle Harbor, Rockaway, Queens. Here's what they desperately need...." She listed everything and told us exactly where to drop it off. Her organizational skills were impressive, and her words compelling.
My 14-year-old son, who embraces public service with sincerity and hard work whenever the opportunity arises, was particularly grateful to get the specifics. Water wasn't needed, but mops and cleanser were.
She described with urgency the state of devastation and despair. "The residents are in a state of shock," she said. "The people are afraid."
This call to action wasn't about some far-off nation or distant city. It was about our neighbors.
Nan was vocal in her criticism. At first, FEMA set up camp two miles away from where most of the people lived -- not all that helpful when people's cars had washed away.
She was really disappointed and annoyed at the Red Cross, who -- when they finally showed up -- brought drinking water, the one supply that residents had in excess.
Nan was also generous with praise, and directed people to give to agencies who were really doing the work on the ground.
"Team Rubicon has effectively taken over the relief effort at St. Francis. They are a highly organized group of ex-military personnel. If anyone is looking for a place to donate funds, I would say Team Rubicon and NY Cares..."
She was also strategic about using her network. She pleaded with us to use any corporate contacts and reported her successes. "Food Network sent 100 pies..." "Lowe's delivered 3,000 buckets today...."
She was unstoppable. She even got the incredibly talented New York Times columnist Joe Nocera to write about what was needed where.
It was hard not to be stirred by Nan's spirit and her intensity.
I knew Nan from more than a decade ago when our oldest kids were in preschool together. I hazily remembered that she had a cool job -- something in the movie business (turns out she reads books and picks which would make great movies).
"Twilight was my biggest success story to date," she laughingly told me after much prodding recently over lunch.
But Sandy was different. It wasn't a great new script for Tom Hanks, for whom she worked for years. Nope. This was bigger than Big. And she couldn't keep herself from getting involved.
I asked Nan about that. "As long as I've been an adult," she said thoughtfully, "I've felt that I needed to be an activist in one way or another. When I was in college I dealt with the big social issues. But when I had my boys, I dug into their world. So I worked on soccer scholarships for kids who couldn't afford to belong to my boys' soccer league. That kind of thing."
Lest you think Nan's desire to help stems from some noblesse oblige, trust fund upbringing, think again. Nan works hard for her money.
Though she continues to scout out films for some of Hollywood's top guns, she became a real estate broker a few years ago to help supplement her ER doctor husband Neal's work.
"I've always seen Neal's work as public service," citing an array of public hospitals where he has worked.
It's hard to know how many hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people Nan has helped. Here are some lessons I've gleaned:
Support Causes That Are Meaningful to the Values You Want to Impart in Your Kids
We all know that there-are-kids-starving-in-fill-in-the-blank isn't really effective when trying to get your kids to finish their dinner. Same is true with volunteer work.
But make your giving relate to something you value right here, right now -- and want your kids to value, too -- and you'll most likely get your message across. One of Nan's big concerns is public education in New York.
"Every parent with a kid in private school has an obligation to help a struggling public school," said Nan. That may sound rarified, but imagine what would happen if privileged parents heeded Nan's call. Those public schools might not be struggling any more.
Don't Force Your Kids to Take On Your Cause
Nan didn't feel compelled to have her kids by her side every minute as she helped out in the Rockaways. But her boys knew where she was and what she was doing -- and they have their own causes.
Her oldest volunteers his musical talents to work with young kids over the summer, an activity that allows him to give back in a very real way for him.
Pick Age-Appropriate Activities for Kids
It's important to keep kids' service age-appropriate. That said, I have found that the sooner kids experience first-hand in a safe environment the realities of homelessness, for example, the more willing they are to embrace the concept of service throughout their lives.
Getting to know people who turned to our local homeless shelter for relief helped my children --and me -- realize they were not so dissimilar from us. They lacked the support system to help them through hard times.
Also, my kids learned how their youth was an asset -- they sang songs, shared stories, and gave of themselves in ways that children do best.
Think of Yourself
You know how sometimes after a major emergency, a public service announcement tells people to stop sending blankets or clothes since the agencies have an overabundance?
Nan first asked what was truly needed. But she also thought about what she would worry about if she were hit by Sandy. Being the professional reader that she is, her mind turned to books.
She was particularly concerned about those ravaged schools with thousands of dislocated school children. So, she contacted the amazing Bank Street Bookstore in New York City and set up an account there that enabled people to buy essential books for schools in need.
Stop Blabbing about Family Values... Just Have Them
At one point during our lunch a light bulb went off for me when Nan said, "Community service is family values."
It's clear that the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do model of child rearing won't cut it with Nan. It's all about how we model good behavior for our kids -- consistently and authentically.
Don't Be Afraid of Work
Most moms that I know sometimes get guilt pangs about not always being around for their kids. Nan unhesitatingly feels that being a working mom who also spends a lot of time doing service work actually makes her a better mom.
"I always wanted a daughter," Nan said. "But I know that the most important thing I was put on earth to do is to have good boys. The girls who get them will be lucky indeed. I know I am charged with teaching them to be respectful of all women and not be afraid of strong women."
And that is the "stuff" that good values are made of--and better than any gadget or trinket that money can buy.
Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, the author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, and a member of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.
This post was originally published on Mint.com.
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