How teens can get more meaning from their required volunteering

youth volunteering at Urban Roots Austin

According to the 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in every 4 American teenagers between 16 and 19 years old volunteered. Of that 26 percent who did, half of them did so without their mothers having to nag them about it all the time.

Okay, that last data point is made up. In fact, when you look at the data from BLS, that age group has one of the highest volunteer rates, higher than young people in college or just out of college and even higher than retirees and seniors. Something is motivating these young people.

Experts attribute the rise in youth volunteering – and the decline in youth working – to the more competitive academic landscape that pushes volunteering over work. Indeed, when you look at listings for volunteer opportunities, many include language around tracking hours or providing proof of their community service. In the meantime, fewer teens are looking for actual jobs.

So today, teen volunteering opportunities are competitive. If your teen thinks they’re going to meet a volunteer organizer groveling and grateful for their attention, they’ll be in for a shock. For the most prestigious volunteer jobs, there are applications and letters of recommendation required, and often interviews as if they were applying for a job.

The hard truth is unless your teen is part of an organized group like scouts, a church youth group or other, they may not have the opportunity to join a more advanced volunteering program that requires some amount of volunteering experience.

So what happened to volunteering because you want to help people? Here’s what I think happened to that: We’ve created volunteering opportunities that serve volunteers rather than a social need. 

It’s like we forgot what volunteering was supposed to be about. But there’s a way to go back to volunteering for good, and it’s actually really simple – and a great motivation tool: Show teens how they made a difference. It’s the whole “outcomes vs. impact” discussion. Rather than documenting how many hours a teen worked, it’s up to volunteer organizers to document what difference the teen made in the community.

If you’re a teenager volunteering, you can add more meaning to your experience, too. Here are some ways to do that: 

1. Be a reliable volunteer.

Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean people aren’t counting on you. Be as responsible as you would if it were a paying job. Nonprofits are serious about creating great volunteer opportunities; make sure teens and young people show respect for the time and energy put into that and act just like they would if it were a paying job. That means following directions, safety precautions and doing the job right.

2. Bring your creativity.

Sometimes teens (and adults, for that matter) expect that everything be perfectly lined up for them to accomplish the work they’ve volunteered to do. While that’s not always the case, don’t think of it as a shortcoming by the organizers, rather think of it as an opportunity to put your skills to work. A positive, helpful attitude will help you use your creativity to problem solve — and isn’t that more fun than just following instructions?

3. Be ready to lead.

Your group’s organizer may have lots to do to make your experience a success, so go ahead and ask what help they might need to make sure you’re both getting out of it what you need. Remember that a leader isn’t a “take charge” person, rather they’re a “how can I help?” person who lifts up others and helps everyone see the bigger picture.

4. Bring a friend. 

Everything’s more fun with someone to share it with. If you can’t bring a friend, make a friend.

Now, here’s a list of meaningful, interesting volunteer projects perfect for young people.

1. Host a gift card drive for LifeWorks, the nonprofit that helps youth on the streets and aging out of foster care. Teens will easily empathize with their peers who are facing a critical time in their lives.

2. Volunteer at the library. Both the Round Rock and Austin libraries offer competitive programs for teens who can help lead lessons and programs as well as shelve books. It’s a great opportunity to support a public resource that so many in our area rely on for books, computer access and access to educational and social services.

3. Host a baby stuff drive for SafePlace, which accepts all types of new baby items like wipes, diapers, bottles, shampoo, lotion and more. Once they learn why babies are housed at the shelter, they’ll see why their work is so important.

4. Volunteer to foster dogs and cats for Austin Pets Alive, which allows teens 13 years old and up to foster an animal from a week to a few months to help keep them from being euthanized.

5Volunteer to sort and label books and/or host a book drive for BookSpring, which provides literacy and reading experiences for families to help children develop a life-long love of reading.

6Help socialize and walk dogs and cats at the Austin Animal Center, which is in desperate need of more volunteers to keep animals healthy and happy while they wait to be adopted.

7. Use your driver’s license to deliver meals for Meals on Wheels, which currently has an urgent need for substitute volunteers this summer. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old.

8. Volunteer at the TreeHouse store in Dell Children’s Medical Center, which is a retail gift shop within the hospital. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old.

9Volunteer on Tuesdays or Thursdays to help maintain the farm at Urban Roots, which uses food and farming to transform the lives of young people. Great for younger volunteers who have a signed parent-permission form.

10. Volunteer to help with office tasks — and get office experience — at The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas, which is the exclusive provider of the community blood supply. Volunteers must be at least 16 years old.

11. Take care of the gardens, goats, chickens and facilities at Mobile Loaves & Fishes Community First! Village, a master-planned community that provides affordable housing and a supportive community for the chronically homeless.

12. Join the Little Helping Hands Teen and Youth Leadership programs. Not only will you be offered opportunities to volunteer and lead volunteer projects, but you’ll also get to work on a project of your own and gain some leadership skills for next-level volunteering.

These are just some of the great ways for teens and young people to get involved. Remember that being reliable, responsible and creative will make for a much more rewarding volunteer experience! Don’t just count the hours, look for ways you can make a positive impact in the community.

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