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8 Great Reasons for Kids to Volunteer (Plus 2 Yes, Buts…)

by Mary Mazzoni on September 24, 2011

“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”    - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Kids are usually eager to serve. And serving is really good for kids.

In fact, volunteering is one of the most powerful ways kids can enrich their lives now and prepare for the future.

When I speak with kids, I give them at least 8 reasons why.

1. You are needed

Your unique self – your passions and your gifts – are needed in the world.
Kids can have a hard time believing this until they actually experience it.
We adults give them lots of messages about what they need (to learn, to have, to do). For some kids – the idea that they themselves are needed- can be a new and exciting concept.

2. You care

What or who inspires passion or compassion in your child?
Animals? Nature? Art? Seniors? Young children? People who are hungry or homeless?
Kids find a sense of power and purpose when they take action to support the people or causes they care about.

3. You can learn more about yourself

Volunteering exposes kids to new situations so they discover new interests and talents. Kids who may struggle in school or competitive activities will shine in the right volunteer setting. When someone expresses appreciation for a specific contribution a teen has made, it may be the first time he realizes he has a valuable gift to offer.

Volunteering can give kids a chance to see themselves in a new light. As our teens contribute to the greater good, they’ll learn a powerful lesson. They can make a positive difference in the world.

4. You can try out careers

Carefully chosen volunteer experiences are much more effective than any career interest test. By spending time in different work environments, kids find out what they like and what they don’t like. Through actual experience.

5. You can gain employment skills and expand your resume

Employers value the work habits gained through volunteering. Even when the specific tasks aren’t directly related to a future career, vulunteer jobs are an excellent addition to any resume.

6. You can build a career network

When kids volunteer responsibly, their supervisors are glad to serve as employment references. Through volunteering, kids build relationships with adults who can give them career advice, and who may be able to connect them with employment opportunities.

7. You can make new friends

Friendships are likely to grow when people who share the same interests and values serve together. And after graduation day, these friendships may continue, even when kids lose touch with former classmates.

8. You’ll feel good

Helping others or contributing to a cause we care about affects us physiologically. Endorphin levels increase, resulting in what’s been dubbed “helper’s high”.  And research links volunteering with decreased depression and other benefits to mental and physical health. Check out “Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research”.

Yes, but…

Our kids and those they serve benefit most when the volunteer job is a good match for their interests, skills and schedule. And when they have the support they need. This is true for all volunteers.

1.  But how can my teen find a volunteer job that’s a good match?

A great place to start is “where the study and practice of volunteerism meet”.  You see, there’s a whole field of study devoted to helping volunteers connect with just the right role. Who knew? Check out “Advice for Volunteers” articles here.

Then, engage your teen in thinking about ways to serve.

  • What is he passionate about?
  • What type of environment is she interested in?
  • With whom would he like to serve?

If your teen’s ability to communicate is very limited, observe her behavior in different settings to gain insight into these questions.

Any teen may have a hard time coming up with ideas until he’s had some actual experience in various volunteer settings. Most organizations are happy for potential volunteers to visit and ask questions.

Consider doing a Think-Plan-Do with your teen to come up with a list of places to visit and questions to ask.

But where do you start to find potential volunteer settings? Especially if your teen’s interests are very specific (like airplanes or railroads or video, or …). Fact is there are opportunities to serve that you and your teen may not even know about. Here are some places to start:

  • Volunteer Match - a national volunteer opportunity database
  • United Way - most local chapters have local volunteer opportunity databases
  • Networking – ask family, friends, associates who have similar interests about organizations that offer volunteer opportunities

It’s often helpful for kids to start with a “try-out” experience.  Before making a commitment to an ongoing volunteer job, it’s important to be sure that the schedule is workable for your teen, that he understands what his specific role is and isn’t, and that he knows who he can go to when he needs help or has questions.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? Yep. But the benefits can be life-changing.  I know young adults who began volunteering in high school and continue now that they’ve graduated.

One young man volunteers at an aviation museum, another with an historic railroad operation, another helps to shoot and copy videos of sermons for shut-ins. The settings and roles vary widely, but for all the young adults I know who volunteer, their work, and the relationships they’ve developed, enrich their lives immeasurably.

2. But my teen needs support the organization can’t provide!

If your teen has significant multiple disabilities and you think he can’t contribute as a volunteer, I respectfully disagree. Everyone has something valuable to contribute.

For years the highlight of my week was volunteering with my friend Mindy in a childcare center. At the time she was a high school student. She had lost her sight and her physical movement and communication skills were limited. She also offered those children a precious gift. Her presence, her attention, and her love.

The children couldn’t wait to spend time with her. They told her their secrets, their troubles and their triumphs. They lined up for hugs, and they reveled in the TLC she gave each of them. My role was subtle and secondary. I simply helped the children and the staff learn to relate not to me, but to Mindy. It was by being herself that Mindy touched the lives of the children.

I encourage you to think creatively.

  • In what setting will your teen love to serve?
  • Who do you know and trust (friend, relative, church member, etc.) that would also like to serve in that environment?
  • What information, support and guidance would that person need in order to best support your child’s meaningful contribution?

Sometimes we parents think that only paid staff can serve in such a role. But I encourage you to think differently. There is likely someone whose life would be enriched by serving with your teen. Who might that person be?

Your Turn

We’d love to hear your thoughts about teens learning and thriving through service. Please share your comments below.

Photo credit: LeoReynolds at Flickr

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