Among the projects SunBeam Kids participate in are picking vegetables in the Green Power Garden, a community garden, so the food can be donated to Waukesha food pantries. (Submitted photo)
Volunteering had always been a part of Katie Mleziva’s life before she had kids. But like a lot of busy parents, after becoming a mom she struggled to find time for service. Opportunities to be a positive part of change in her community were plentiful — but they all seemed to demand even more time away from her family.
“I wanted to find something I could do with them, but I didn’t know what places would let kids volunteer,” said Mleziva, a parishioner at St. Dominic in Brookfield. She recalls having a conversation with some other moms in the preschool parking lot one day back in 2013; “We were saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone who would plan something like this for families?’”
Mleziva decided she would be that person. That year, with the help of some friends, she launched Sunbeam Kids, a non-profit organization that coordinates regular service opportunities for families. Mleziva and the rest of the Sunbeam Kids leadership group plan several service projects around the greater Milwaukee area each month, and member families can participate in whichever projects fit their schedule.
Marlee Jansen, a parishioner at St. John Vianney in Brookfield, has been involved in Sunbeam Kids for the past eight years, and she is a member of the group’s board of directors. “Volunteering has always been important to me, but it’s not that easy to find things for little kids,” she said. What drew her to Sunbeam Kids was the opportunity to make service opportunities accessible for entire families as something to do together. “It’s really important for kids to see their parents volunteering, too,” she said.
From sorting food at the Riverwest Food Pantry to serving dinner at the Ronald McDonald House and collecting mitten and hat donations for the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the group has planned dozens of service projects throughout the years that have taught kids the importance of “lending a little hand” in their community.
“We say ‘lending a hand’ instead of helping. It’s a subtlety, but it’s about pitching in and being a part of something,” Mleziva said. “Ultimately, we want to give kids the confidence that they can make a difference when they’re helping other people.”
Though Sunbeam Kids is not affiliated with any one religion, both Mleziva and Jansen said their Catholic faith was a strong factor in their desire to teach their kids about service.
“We have family faith formation at St. John Vianney, and there have been times when we’re talking about service and living the way Jesus taught us to live. When the kids are asked for feedback about what that looks like in their life, they consistently bring up Sunbeam Kids,” Jansen said.
The group has about 100 member families who have the option of participating in monthly service projects — as many or as few as they can. Mleziva describes the structure as one of helping bridge the gap between families’ good intentions and their busy realities.
Originally, service projects were aimed at families with children ages 3 to 7, but as their membership base grew and their own children got older, the service opportunities also transformed. Now, Sunbeam Kids even has a “youth board” comprised of member families’ older children who make recommendations for projects they feel passionate about.
“We want them to feel like they have a place in the organization. Adults are really listening to them,” Mleziva said. “They get so much joy and confidence out of that.”
To learn more about Sunbeam Kids, visit sunbeamkids.org or check out their Facebook page at facebook.com/SunbeamKids.
Tips for involving your kids in service
Start by discussing what interests, passions or social concerns they have personally.
“Getting kids engaged in that conversation is an easy thing, but some of us are so busy we forget,” Mleziva said. “Start by recognizing what your kids are passionate about. If they’re really into sports, think about collecting sports equipment at your house that they’re not using anymore, or asking friends if they’ve got anything to donate. Or maybe they’re worried about the homeless person they saw and it’s really sticking with them — ask them if they would be interested in making sandwiches for The Guest House. Very quickly, your kids can see the cumulative effect when you take action.”
Jansen advised that it’s important not to be afraid to start small — because those tiny acts of service will usually transform into something bigger. “We do a lot of park and beach cleanups with Sunbeam Kids, and I’ve noticed my kids cannot walk by litter anymore; they have to pick it up,” she said. “When you’re at the park, bring some gloves and a bag, and you can make things just a little bit better.”
“One of my takeaways from this whole experience with Sunbeam Kids is that it doesn’t take a lot to plant those seeds in kids’ minds,” Mleziva said. “You do a project once and your kid starts to think about it. You do it a couple times and they begin to really feel a part of it. The more you do it, great, but even little things in kids’ minds can be really impactful.”