More and more, middle and high school students around the country are being required to perform community service hours as part of their learning experience.
Parents often struggle with how they can guide their tweens and teens to select a community service project that will be meaningful instead of just having it be something kids mark off their checklist or use to pad their “resume” for college.
But if students can get involved in giving back to a cause or helping their community in a way that matters to them, the lasting benefits can be far-reaching. As anyone who has ever volunteered knows, the satisfaction and pride that comes from helping others can be life changing.
Carol Jacobs, superintendent of schools in Georgetown, Mass., feels strongly that schools have a responsibility to instill in young people the value of giving back to their community.
“I think in today’s society people are busy and focused outside of their community, so to help our young people experience community service as part of their education provides them with the chance to give back to the community that helped raise them,” Jacobs says. “The value of helping others and not being compensated for it monetarily may be new to the children of today unless they are part of a church or civic organization or come from a family where service to the community is part of their lifestyle.”
Three years ago Georgetown High School instituted a mandatory policy requiring students to complete 40 hours of community service by graduation. The school encourages students to perform 10 hours per year, starting their freshman year.
“Our students and the businesses in which they [serve] report great success with this initiative,” Jacobs says. “The true test will be to see if a large number of students will keep up the trend and continue to make this [part of their] lifestyle, but at least this experience provides them with the exposure to work, service, and giving back to the community.”
Community Service Can Make Volunteering a Lifelong Habit
Overall, volunteerism is on the rise across the country, and there are many websites designed specifically for teens and tweens to help inspire them to step outside their sometimes egocentric world and help others. According to IndependentSector.org, 59 percent of teenagers volunteer an average of 3.5 hours per week: that’s 13.3 million volunteers totaling 2.4 billion hours at a total value of $7.7 billion.
DoSomething.org, one of the largest organizations in the country for teens and social change, says this about the 13- to 18-year-old set: “We love teens. They are creative, active, wired…and frustrated that our world is so messed up. DoSomething.org harnesses that awesome energy and unleashes it on causes teens care about. Almost every week, we launch a new national campaign. The call to action is always something that has a real impact and doesn’t require money, an adult, or a car.”
An example of some past campaigns includes “Teens for Jeans,” where 125,000 teenagers across the country collected more than a million pairs of jeans to give to those in need. (DoSomething.org notes that one in three homeless people in the United States is under age 18). Another popular campaign was “Thumb Wars,” which had teens educate their friends at school about the dangers of texting and driving. These simple initiatives made a big impact and allowed teens to see they can be a part of something empowering.
Being outdoors is important to many teens and their parents, and there are numerous community service options that allow kids to do so. Ally Colarusso, a teen from Wenham, Mass., is passionate about the beaches near her home. For the past several years, she’s volunteered to perform beach cleanups with COASTSWEEP, an international campaign organized by the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C.
“The COASTSWEEP organization sends me everything I need for [each] cleanup,” says Colarusso, explaining that she receives a kit containing plastic gloves for collecting trash, as well as bags and data cards with various categories where she lists the debris she picks up. Colarusso says she and other volunteers typically find batteries, balloons, toys, cans, rope, and fishing lines, and explains that not only is she helping beautify the beaches, but she’s also doing research.
“Collecting the data on what type of trash our beaches have will help educate communities and government agencies about the problem and hopefully minimize it in the future,” she says. COASTSWEEP cleanups are scheduled throughout the world in September and October each year.
To narrow the numerous volunteer options, parents should first have a conversation with their child to understand the causes he cares about. Is he passionate about animals? Then maybe helping at their town’s animal shelter is something he’d get excited about. What about the teen boy who only wants to play his Xbox game of Battlefield? Maybe helping out a local organization that ships packages to soldiers overseas would be something he could relate to and get behind. Each child has his own personality and interests—and parents should tap into those interests to ensure the community service project has an impact.
Here are 5 ideas for community service options for young and older teens:
1. Animals: Local animal shelters are always in need of volunteers even for simple tasks such as cleaning cages, answering phones, or making holiday decorations for the shelter waiting room. Contact a local shelter and speak with a volunteer coordinator to see what help is needed. Don’t have a local shelter or a way for your child to get to one? Have her visit DoSomething.org and sign up for “Pics for Pets,” a soon-to-be-launched campaign where volunteers snap photos of pets waiting to be adopted, which shelter staffers say can double an animal’s chance of finding a permanent home.
2. Seniors: Every community has senior citizens who would relish the time and help that a teen could lend. Most towns and cities have a senior center or a private nursing home where volunteers are needed. The recreation director who helps plans activities for the seniors is a good person to contact. Even a small amount of time with a senior can make a difference. Teens could offer manicures to elderly women or perhaps help seniors learn to use a computer and email to stay in touch with their own grandchildren. Tweens could adopt a senior citizen as a “grand-friend” and write letters to him. Raking leaves or shoveling snow for a senior citizen is often a welcome way to help. Even just going for a walk with an elderly member of the community, delivering her a meal, or reading to an elder who is housebound can make their day—and give your child some meaningful community service hours.
3. Helping other kids: For student athletes, a great way to give back to others is to volunteer at a Special Olympics event. There are hundreds of Special Olympics offices around the world, and all of them need volunteers at various times during the year. Find the Special Olympics office nearest your home. Teens can help out at the actual sporting events as well as get involved in Special Olympics Project UNIFY®. This is an education-based project where all youth are agents of change—fostering respect, dignity, and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities.
4. Troop support: Volunteering to help support active duty U.S. servicemen and women is a great initiative for tweens and teens. Begin by contacting an organization that ships packages to troops, such as Operation Gratitude or Operation Troop Support. These and other organizations collect donated items, which they package and send to individually named service members deployed in hostile regions. The donated items can include snacks, entertainment items, and personal letters of appreciation, as well as small items like socks, decks of cards, candy, and even toothbrushes. Teens can organize a donation drive and collect some of the most needed items. As the holidays approach, these organizations are also looking for volunteers to help wrap gifts to ship to servicewomen and men, and kids can also write cards and draw pictures to include in the packages. “For the soldiers, receiving the cards is truly priceless,” says Christine Moody of Operation Troop Support.
5. The environment: Many teens care deeply about the threats facing our environment and may have an interest in helping their community “go green.” Community service ideas include planting a neighborhood garden or a tree for all to enjoy (with proper municipal permissions, of course); launching a campaign to get friends to put their computers and other electronic devices in sleep mode before going to bed, thereby saving energy; organizing (or participating in) a community cleanup day; or helping clear hiking trails or performing beach cleanups.
For more ideas to motivate your teen volunteer, check out VolunteerMatch.org, a site with an enormous database of nonprofit volunteer opportunities across the country.