As the holidays are upon us, many teens and their families start thinking about fulfilling community service requirements for school. Winter break is coming up and it might be a good time to get some volunteer hours completed. It sounds simple, but finding volunteer opportunities for kids is not always that easy.
Most schools only require a small number of hours per student each year; 10–20 hours of community service. Many organizations will not accept short–term volunteers. They'll accept teens but they want them to make a six-month commitment, (or longer). Some organizations have short term projects but they don't accept anyone under 18. So, what can teens and their families do to get community service hours?
First, start by thinking about what your teen loves to do. Brainstorm with them. Are they great at chess? A fantastic knitter or crafter? Do they play piano or have a green thumb? Are they bookish or sports-oriented? Computer–savvy? Are they fluent in any foreign languages? What do they want to do when they “grow-up”? What subject might they wish to study when they head off to college? If you're having trouble coming up with ideas, ask them what would they like to be doing if they had a day off from school and could do anything they wanted. Parents should really think about what their child wants to do as a volunteer, not what the parent would like them to do. If you want to volunteer together as a family, there are opportunities for that too.
So, you've determined that your twelve-year old is a great chess player and that is what she would love to do on her day off. When you check volunteermatch.org and idealist.org there are no volunteer opportunities for chess playing teens. Well, would she want to play chess with seniors at a nursing home? Or maybe she would like to teach younger kids how to play at a local library. Have your child make up their own volunteer opportunity.
Speaking with other Volunteer Managers around NYC, we all feel it is always best to have your child write that letter or email inquiring about opportunities. Have your child make the phone call asking about playing chess every Thursday afternoon at a nursing home. You can help them research a few places in your neighborhood, and you might find out the names of people who administer recreational programs, but your child should make the calls. Why? It shows that they are mature, have good planning skills and are not afraid to interact with adults. Finding a good volunteer opportunity can be just as competitive as finding a job. Lots of people use volunteer activities to learn new skills to add to their resumes. Many people who are in between jobs volunteer so they can network with others. Your child may be competing with adults for that volunteer position.
Don't overlook any parts of the volunteer application. Make sure that your handwriting is legible. I often look at terrific applications from teenagers. I want to place them, but I can't read their phone number or their email address. If I can't read their application, I can't get back to them. Pay attention to details. I receive lots of applications where teens state that they can volunteer on Sundays at a library that has never been open on Sundays. Plan ahead. If your child wants to volunteer at a popular place like the Bronx Zoo this summer, they should be filling out their application now. Don't wait until school ends, by then, all the best volunteer positions are gone.
Sometimes age requirements are set in stone and other times they can be a bit flexible. It depends on the organization. Call, email or write a letter and ask. My own 12-year-old son desperately wanted to be a Nature Watch volunteer. He saw it advertised in a newsletter from a local nature organization near our home. He asked me for two years. Last year, I emailed the Director and asked if they would accept a 12-year-old volunteer. They said yes, they would consider the application if a parent accompanied the child to each assignment. My son would need to attend a four hour training, do about 10 hours of studying and commit to 4 three hour shifts between March and June. He would also be observed on his first shift. It was a pretty big commitment, but for an organization that we all loved. So, our entire family became Nature Watch volunteers. We love it and will be back again next spring.
Consider the tasks you may be doing when volunteering. When I volunteer as a 4H leader, I am usually in a nice, heated or air-conditioned classroom or leading a field trip in a comfortable museum. When I'm out in the wetlands as a Nature Watch volunteer it may be freezing cold or blazing hot with ruthless mosquitoes. I have to be able to carry heavy telescopes and equipment. Read all the fine print when applying to be a volunteer and ask questions. Try to know what you are getting into before signing up. If your child is incredibly shy, a volunteer position speaking to the public probably won't work, but behind the scenes in an office for the same organization might be a perfect fit.
Once you've signed up, stay with it. You really can't learn much about an organization in only 10 hours. Ask your child to stick with their volunteering for a while. Committed volunteers usually get asked to help with other, more interesting projects. You'll never know if you leave after 4 weeks. Long-term volunteering also looks great on job applications and college and scholarship applications. Many scholarships are only awarded to students who have substantial community service as part of their applications.
Don't have time for a long-term project? There are many great one day opportunities such as the MLK Day of Service, Earth Day and Coastal Clean-up Day. Keep a list of all your one day volunteer activities. Currently, there are many opportunities for volunteering with the Hurricane Sandy Recovery efforts.
Get creative. I know a group of teens who knit scarves and make fleece blankets. They get together for craft days. They'll spend five or six hours knitting and making “no-sew” blankets and then they have an adult donate them all to a local battered women's shelter. Have your child get together with a few friends and bake pet treats to donate to a local animal shelter. Have an adult oversee the project and keep a sign-in sheet of who attended. Take photos and then have the organization that you donate to send an email or letter acknowledging the children's donations. This can then be sent to your child's school to verify their service hours.
Here are a few organizations that have opportunities for teens. The New York Public Library always has openings for teens age 14 and older. Check out our Volunteer page for listing of available options. If your child is not the literary type see below for more possibilities. Good Luck and Happy Volunteering!