Our daughter is currently working on her Silver Award project for Girl Scouts. She is collecting hundreds of books and setting up libraries and a reading incentive program for the children in a children’s home in Mexico. Although the award only requires a service project of 40 hours, her completed project will take probably three times that amount of hours to complete. Yet she is excited and has managed the project with a flair and maturity well beyond her years. I believe this is not only because she has a passion for the project, but because of her love for the recipients.
When our daughter was two years old, she went on her first mini mission trip. We were vacationing in Mexico and went for the day to encourage a missionary family we knew in another town. Since then, we have been on numerous full length mission trips to help with a children’s home that was established in that city. Our daughter would move to Mexico in a heartbeat to help with the mission. The worst punishment we could give her would be to lengthen the time between our visits. In fact, we often joke that one day she will live with her future husband in Mexico as full time missionaries.
Parents often ask me how she became so passionate about any mission work at such a young age. Recently some moms I know, whose children have a heart for missions, were comparing notes with me. I realized we all had followed some of the same basic principles with similar results.
1. It is never too early to start. Our daughter was packing up cans of food for an inner city ministry at eighteen months old. She was a regular visitor there many times before she was even in school. A friend of ours took their six month old daughter on her first foreign mission trip last summer. Once you take the necessary health precautions (vaccinations, bottled water, special hours, etc.) for your location, the risks are really no greater than staying at home. The rewards, however, are numerous.
2. Let your child participate in the entire process whenever possible. Too many times children are allowed to box up supplies or make cards for a mission effort, but are never really sure what happens to their project. The experience is so much more meaningful if you allow them to participate in the entire process whenever possible. If you are conducting a school supply drive, allow your child to go with you to the store to purchase the items. Let them help sort, bag or box the group’s collections. Most importantly, allow your child to help deliver them to the ministry or the actual recipients. The project is then a more concrete and therefore more meaningful experience for him.
3. Help your child develop relationships with the people you are serving. Our daughter was doing some regular volunteer work at a nearby Alzheimer’s Assisted Living Facility. It added an emotional depth to the experience only after she became attached to one of the residents. Now the first thing she does when we visit is look for her “Mr. M” and make sure he is still healthy. It added meaning for her even though he doesn’t remember her from time to time. She has become so attached to the children at the children’s home in Mexico, that she considers them her siblings. She values her friendships with those children as much as any relationships with friends at home. The emotional bonds your children develop help open their hearts to loving others.
4. Save your pennies for a family foreign mission trip. I know in tight economic times, foreign travel is a luxury. We have given up some family vacations over the years to save money for our mission trips to Mexico. I cannot over emphasize the benefits of going on a mission trip as a family. It will strengthen your family bonds as you work to serve others. Educationally, a foreign mission experience is ideal. Your child’s senses are flooded with new sights, sounds, tastes and smells. Add to that the hard work and emotional and spiritual affects of a mission trip and you have given your child a life changing experience.
5. Openly show your own passion for mission work. Children are very observant. They pick up not only on everything we say and do, but surprisingly they can sense our true feelings. It is important for you to develop your own heart for missions. If mission work is something you do because you think you are required to do it, your child will most likely mimic that attitude. Do whatever you need to do to develop in your own heart a love for others and a passion for saving their souls. This is especially important when you are working with people society would normally reject. Children are sometimes fearful of people who are “different” in some way. We have taught our daughter to remind herself of the scripture in Hebrews (Hebrews 13:2) about “angels unaware”. She is taught healthy stranger safety rules, but knows as long as she is in a safe environment, she should treat everyone with love and respect as a potential “angel”.
6. Encourage your child to develop a personal project to support a mission work. Even though our daughter’s current project is many hours from completion, we can already see the emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth it is providing her. We started years ago with personal family projects. One of our most rewarding was putting together a “hurricane” closet for the children’s home. It took a lot of planning and work. She learned a great deal about planning and executing a large projectas we included her in every part of the process. She is now able to plan this project and knows how to get lots of people involved to help cover all of the many aspects. (Update 2012: On our latest visit to Mexico our daughter entered the resource center on the campus of the children’s home. Even though it has been several years since her Silver Award project, she was still so excited to find the 500 books she had collected and dispersed over several houses had turned into a well-organized rather large library. Now almost 16, she is currently planning her Gold Award project. She is so experienced at planning large projects and mission trips now, that often she will remind me of something we need to do or take to complete the project.)
If your children are older, it is never too late to begin. My husband and I took a parenting class before our daughter was born. One of the things that stuck with me is that if you realize at some point you have made a parenting error, it’s never too late to change. However you choose to start making mission work a part of your child’s life, I urge you to take up this challenge as soon as possible. I think you and your child will be blessed as much as those you serve.