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Families Find Unity Volunteering Together

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When Rebecca Spaide of New Canaan, Conn., started planning her ninth birthday party, her mother, Deborah, offered an unusual idea. Instead of having guests buy gifts for Rebecca, she suggested, they could bring presents for residents of a local homeless shelter.

Rebecca agreed. When 16 friends arrived for her party last month, they brought everything from food to towels and blankets. The next day, Mrs. Spaide drove Rebecca and four friends to the shelter to deliver the bounty. ''It felt good,'' Rebecca says. ''I'm giving something to them instead of to me, because I have so much and they have so little.''

That charitable spirit typifies a growing movement across the country in which entire families are volunteering together.

By including children and teenagers, parents are instilling a sense of community responsibility. They are also turning outreach into family time together.

''It's a tremendously bonding experience to share something as fulfilling as helping meet another person's need with other members of your family,'' Spaide says. ''How could parents better teach their kids values?''

Calling family volunteerism an ''emerging trend of the '90s,'' Sheryl Nefstead, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service in St. Paul, Minn., says, ''People are trying to put more emphasis on family cohesiveness, and they're searching for ways to help young people have a sense of hope and satisfaction.'' Other motivating factors include greater awareness of social problems and a realization that government support is diminishing.

In a Gallup survey done last year, more than a third of American households said volunteering together is part of family life. The most common activities include: helping older people, working with youth programs, and helping church or religious programs. Nearly half of volunteer families assist in sports or school programs. A third are involved in environmental programs and a quarter in serving the homeless.

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