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.
For the Spaides and their five children, who range in age from 7 to 18, volunteer activities have included repairing a public housing apartment, making sandwiches for a soup kitchen, and raking leaves for elderly residents in their town. As their experiences broadened, Spaide turned her expertise into a new book, ''Teaching Your Kids to Care: How to Discover and Develop the Spirit of Charity in Your Children'' (Citadel Press).
Charity, Spaide explains, helps children and teenagers discover talents, develop skills, and learn about cooperation and problem-solving. It also teaches what she calls antimaterialism. ''Charity is process-oriented, not product-oriented,'' she says.
Nationally, a program called Family Matters encourages families to volunteer together. The four-year-old program has recruited more than 5,000 families, staff member Barbara Lohman says. These range from upper-middle class suburban families outside New York City to a Central American immigrant family with three children in Los Angeles.
Although two-parent families make up 60 percent of households volunteering together, according to the Gallup survey, family configurations vary widely.
''I've had single mothers tell me there's no excuse for them not to find time to volunteer with their kids,'' Ms. Lohman says. ''They feel it makes their time together more valuable.''
Family Matters also urges businesses and nonprofit organizations to recognize the value of family volunteering, which Lohman calls ''the next wave'' in corporate volunteerism. Among companies with corporate volunteer programs, half encourage employee families to participate, according to a recent survey by the Conference Board.
One company with a long history of volunteerism, Target Stores in Minneapolis, encourages employees to include family members in community service. Activities range from ''paint-a- thons'' - painting houses for low-income homeowners - to taking disadvantaged children to the zoo or cultural programs.
''We've had wonderful response,'' says Target's Carolyn Brookter. ''By including family members, employees find volunteering to be more important.''
Lohman cites other benefits. ''I've talked to several families who say they believe that family volunteering has kept their family together,'' she says. ''That's a pretty powerful statement. They see each other now in a different way and value each other in new ways.'' She also tells of a 16-year-old girl in Colorado who said, ''I know how to talk to adults now. None of my friends do.'' The teenager, Lohman explains, ''felt she learned that skill through volunteering with her family.''
Often, Lohman adds, children get parents involved, rather than the other way around. ''They may have a project in school, perhaps something involving environmental volunteerism,'' she says. ''Kids decide they want to do it and recruit their parents.''
For Randy Dostal of Silver Lake, Minn., family volunteering takes two forms. As a staffing specialist at Hutchinson Technology in Hutchinson, Minn., he encourages employees to include their families in corporate volunteer activities.
As a parent, he also considers volunteering an essential family activity. He and his wife and their six children, who range from 7 to 17, devote many hours each week to 4-H, church, school, and community activities.
''I was always brought up on volunteerism,'' Mr. Dostal says. ''My parents did it, and I guess it just rubbed off on me. If I can give something back or do something for someone, it makes me feel good all over.''
Beyond the altruistic lessons children learn, Dostal sees other benefits in family volunteering. ''It's made our children more outgoing,'' he says. ''They're able to work with anyone, no matter what race or nationality. They're willing to do things without anyone having to pressure them. They don't say no very often. As they go on to college and then get jobs, volunteering is going to make a big difference in their lives.''
Sometimes family volunteering brings economic benefits as well. With nine people spanning three generations in her household, Sharon Gage of Lino Lakes, Minn., finds volunteering at a Fair Share cooperative an ideal way to spend time as a family and also reduce grocery bills by shopping there herself.
Even little kids can help
''It's something we can do together on a Saturday morning, instead of spending time in front of the TV,'' Mrs. Gage says. Family Day, when volunteers divide bulk food into smaller quantities, ''mixes kids and grandparents and all ages together. Even little kids can put six apples in a bag or measure two cups of oatmeal.''
Spaide emphasizes the importance of giving children volunteer projects that allow them to see results quickly. Calling this ''hands-on charity,'' she offers as an example ''making a peanut butter sandwich and handing it to someone who's hungry.'' Least effective for children, is what's she describes as ''abstract charity.'' She explains, ''It's not meaningful for children to just hand over their money and not be able to understand how it's going to help.''
For families interested in volunteering, Spaide suggests calling soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and nursing homes to ask what they need. Corporate volunteer programs, youth groups, and churches also offer avenues for service.
Summing up three advantages of family volunteering, Lohman says, ''It obviously benefits the community that's served. It benefits the family for serving together. And it benefits each individual in the family. How can you lose?''