Behavior & Development • Jan 19, 2015

Teaching teens to volunteer; the importance of community service

TeensTeenagers are not only an extremely valuable resource of energy, good will and creativity, but also the key to our future. In a culture that is so wrapped around ‘wants’ and ‘achievements,’ it is easy for our teenagers to grow up without a sense of gratitude for what they have and empathy for the needs of the less fortunate around them. Volunteering in community service projects and helping others can be very fulfilling, and if you can show your teen how enriching it is from a young age, they’ll start to make an association between helping someone else and their own joy. There are lots of service projects available to teens locally, statewide, nationally and even internationally. Although volunteering can sometimes be a part of high school graduation requirements and meeting scholarship needs, it needs to be instilled in teens as a value that is truly appreciated and pursued with passion.

How to choose? Choosing the right service opportunity can influence how your teen interacts with that cause, and makes volunteer commitments, going forward. So give careful consideration to his or her interests and abilities, your interests, logistics of location and time commitment, and even the attitude of the organization staff. The reach of volunteering can be limited to the school and student body, or it can have a wider reach locally like organizing a blood drive, hosting an awareness event for young kids at the local library, holding a collection of canned goods for the food bank, participating in soup kitchens, or caring for animals at a shelter. It could also be for a national cause like raising awareness about AIDS or helping in areas of natural disasters.  But try to choose an activity that accommodates the teen’s interest and time commitment to ensure longevity in participation.

What to stress: Make sure you lead by example. Parental participation in volunteering regularly or even occasionally promotes bonding, mutual respect, and deeper conversations on ethical issues. Make sure your teen realizes how his/her time is directly impacting the needy group/ community and discuss possible ideas of how to further the cause. Stress on discipline; committing to a volunteering activity regularly, whether it’s a few hours a week or once a month or just during their summer break, has long term implications for both our teens and our community.

Benefits of volunteering: Teen volunteering has been on a steady rise since the 1980s. Research has shown that teens who engage in community service are more responsible with higher self-esteem and resilience. Volunteering helps the teens gain new skills necessary for the job market such as leadership, communication skills, dependability, time management, and decision making. Teens who volunteer perform better at school and also build a stronger resume for college and scholarship applications.

Some community service ideas for teens:

Sports: Teens could participate in fund-raising activities or offer to assist on the day of school sports events. Look up the Special Olympics website to check what is scheduled in your area and offer to volunteer. There are a wide range of opportunities that provide a rewarding experience for our young athletes.

Local hospitals: For teens interested in healthcare and serving the sick, there are sometimes opportunities to volunteer in local hospitals after some initial medical screening and training.

Animal lovers: You could volunteer at a local shelter for homeless animals where you could help with activities such as walking the dogs, cleaning, or feeding the animals.

Helping senior citizens: You can participate through school-hosted elderly or hospice programs or contact the local nursing homes directly. Programs such as Meals on Wheels encourage volunteer participation and you could help pack and deliver meals. Just by visiting the elderly who have no family brings them so much comfort. You could also volunteer by bringing gifts during holidays or reading out to them.

Volunteering taps into a teen’s innate desire to be independent, in a productive way. Teenagers are extremely busy bodies with academics, extracurricular activities, sports, and of course their social events! But carving a few hours out of their busy schedules regularly for community service can be therapeutic for them and also better our community on so many levels.