Building Teen Character: Volunteering for Community Service
By Rachel Paxton
Volunteering in the community is a great way to serve the people in the area where you live. Many non-profit organizations are run by people who give a lot of their own time and money to make your community a better place, and volunteers help these services to continue.
In addition, community service is a great way for teenagers to become aware of needs outside themselves. Don't wait until your teenagers are required to perform mandatory community service to help them get more involved in your community.
Our first experience with volunteer work came about when our daughter was about 12. I was working full time, and we were looking for something for her to occupy her time during the summer. We contacted our local "volunteer center" to find out about available volunteer opportunities in our community. Through that center we found out about a local day camp for disabled children. It is administered by adults but almost completely run by teenagers. The older kids (ages 16-21) are employed by the organization as camp counselors, and the younger teens (ages 12-16) are volunteers. Each disabled child has a teen "pal" for all activities. They go to the park, go swimming, and a variety of other activities for about 4 hours a day. Volunteers sign up for 1 week at a time, and can volunteer all summer if they want.
This kind of volunteer work isn't for everyone, of course, but our daughter had a great time volunteering for this organization and worked there every summer for four years. A lot of the volunteers come back as paid counselors when they turn 16. The younger teens also love hanging out with the older teens, and the disabled kids love all the attention. This service gives the parents of these kids very needed time off and is a wonderful resource in our community, while also offering a unique experience for the volunteers.
There are many other types of volunteer work. Other types of services our daughter has been involved with:
* Your local humane society is a great place to volunteer as a family. My daughter and I used to go to our humane society and play with the cats and take dogs for walks. They called this "pet socialization", so that the animals would have an easier transition into new homes. We had a great time doing this together. Our daughter also organized her own yard sale and published a newsletter for kids to raise money for the humane society.
* When our daughter was 16, she became involved in a teen "suicide hotline" program sponsored by our community. She went through an intensive training program to teach her how to talk to teens who are considering suicide. Teens volunteer to man a phone line in 4-hour shifts.
* Local churches are great resources for volunteer opportunities. For several years I was a youth group leader in our daughter's high school youth group. One year we spent a week in Billings, Montana, working in their homeless shelter and food bank. To me this was quite an eye-opening experience, especially talking to and sharing experiences with the people who work at these places every day. Last year our daughter spent a week in Idaho fixing up and updating several schools, and this year she is travelling to Honduras for two weeks.
The services performed through volunteer work are only a portion of the benefits of volunteering time in the community. Teenagers by nature are very often self-focused and need to be offered opportunities to reach out of themselves and help others. The earlier they learn to do these things the more natural it will become for them later in life. Other benefits of volunteer work are valuable experience for applying for jobs and college scholarships.