Mitchell teaches at-risk youths how to sail a tall ship. Carly interprets the life of a 19th-century child. And Haley walks dogs at an animal shelter. What do these three kids have in common? They’re among the estimated 15.5 million young people who participate in volunteer activities. And like many others, these three kids are finding they get back more than they give through volunteering. Here are some of the benefits they’ve found (and your child could gain, too):
Discovery of new interests
Mitchell Smith hadn’t done any sailing before he joined the Topsail Program at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute at age 12. But now his mom says he loves being aloft aboard the 100-foot brigantines.
“He found a passion for sailing,” says Mitchell’s mom, Sandy. “It opened him up to a whole new world.”
In fact, Mitchell often volunteers as an excuse to get in more sailing. In a word, he’s hooked.
Volunteering gives kids a chance to try new things. In the process they can uncover talents and interests they hadn’t been aware of. Some may even go on to pursue college studies and careers inspired by their volunteer experiences.
Youth volunteers gain valuable exposure to interacting with the public they couldn’t get anywhere else. It requires them to exercise their communication and public-speaking skills. In turn, this fosters confidence as students see the positive impact of their interactions.
Carly Mulder, a junior interpreter at the Naper Settlement living history museum in Naperville, Ill., learned early on that part of her role involved greeting museum visitors and fielding questions about the games and other activities she demonstrates. Karin, Carly’s mom, notes she has seen Carly’s confidence improve from her involvement at the museum.
“She’s learning how to interact with the public and how to have confidence in dealing with other people.”
Wearing a costume and imagining herself as a person from a different era helped. So did special training provided by the museum.
Even behind-the-scenes roles can instill confidence as kids find success in completing the tasks they’re given. And connecting with fellow volunteers and coordinators can be enough to help reticent youngsters come out of their shells and develop valuable social skills. For some kids, simply the act of sharing their time and being valued for their service can build self-assurance.
Broadened perspective on life
Volunteer experiences also give kids a chance to get outside of their neighborhood and have contact with people who are different from them. Whether at a museum or a food pantry, volunteering opens up children’s horizons. It exposes them to more of the world — in a controlled environment where they can feel safe.
Haley McDonald’s mom, Bobbie, has involved her in a variety of volunteering experiences since a young age, including one while on vacation in the Dominican Republic.
“We went to a farm and helped with a project,” explains Bobbie. “It was a huge, broadening experience — seeing that everyone doesn’t live the way you live.”
While many volunteer opportunities are one-time events, kids can also sign up for regular shifts. Being committed to an ongoing position requires taking responsibility. Mitchell’s mom points out that it makes him prioritize his activities. He has to decide whether he’ll sign up for a sailing shift or do something else. And Carly’s mom sees how it has helped her daughter learn the importance of following through on obligations.
Kids also often get the opportunity to have increased responsibility in the role they play and the tasks they perform in their position as a volunteer. Mitchell has learned how to sail a tall ship, and also teaches others. And Carly hopes one day to move up to giving tours in one of the museum’s buildings.
When kids find a volunteer position that fits them well, the common response is, “It doesn’t feel like work.” When the position and the child’s interests match, to them it’s more like a chance to get out and play. This in turn can be a good step in helping them discover their vocation.
Taking along a friend, as Haley frequently does, adds to the experience as well. In fact, group settings can be a good introduction to a volunteer experience, such as through a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop or church youth group. When kids have fun during an initial stint, they’re more likely to sign up again in the future. And after a while, they’re signing up because it’s something they enjoy.
Don’t underestimate what your child might have to offer an organization as a volunteer. And don’t underestimate the positive impact that experience can have on him. As these three young people have found, there’s a lot to be gained by giving your time to a local organization.
Lara Krupicka is a freelance writer and mom to three girls. She enjoys watching her daughters grow through volunteer experiences.
Organizations accepting youth volunteers
If your child isn’t sure where she would like to volunteer, here are a few good places to start:
• Hospitals (think candy stripers)
• Animal shelters
• Food pantries
For other opportunities, check out www.volun
Tips on getting started
1. Look for a one-time opportunity to try out the concept of volunteering, such as at a food pantry.
2. Volunteer side by side with your child. It can be a good bonding experience and models the spirit of volunteerism.
3. Watch for chances to pair your child’s interests with a service activity.
4. Try, try again. If the first experience doesn’t work, look for another place for your child to serve.
5. Take a long-term view. If you value service to others, continue helping your child get involved in volunteering. As Dr. Bobbie McDonald (a doctor of psychology and mother of a youth volunteer) points out, “Anything you involve kids in on a regular basis, they’re likely to continue into adulthood.”