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Promote youth volunteerism

March 22, 2009
By Shannon Dygert, For The Leader-Herald

While negative stereotypes abound on the outlook, lifestyles and attitudes of young people today, most youths in the country are actually healthy, happy and productive members of society.

In fact, the majority of youths in the U.S. engage in some form of volunteer activity, and more youths - 59 percent - serve as volunteers compared to adults - 49 percent - according to the University of Nebraska and Maria R.T. de Guzman.

When youths volunteer, almost everyone involved reaps the benefits. More than $60 billion is estimated to be contributed annually to the U.S. economy by virtue of volunteer services. Volunteering also helps various service organizations, for instance, by cutting down costs of operations and making services available to a larger audience.

When youths volunteer, the larger community also benefits.

Volunteerism promotes positive citizenship among youths by encouraging them to be more engaged in their own communities. Youths who volunteer feel more connected to their community, are more likely to show concern, and to stay in or return to their communities. Thus, youth volunteerism contributes substantially to community vitality.

Finally, while volunteerism is focused on helping others, perhaps the biggest benefits to volunteering are reaped by the volunteers themselves. Studies suggest that youth volunteerism contributes to identity development, enhancement of skills (including increasing job marketability), increased self-esteem, development of empathy for others, and other improvements related to positive youth development. Often, volunteer endeavors also facilitate the development of significant relationships. Through these activities, youths are able to meet like-minded individuals, as well as a possible range of people they would otherwise not encounter.

Youths become involved in volunteer work for various reasons. Youth volunteers surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics mention the following factors as encouraging them to become involved:

They were approached or asked by an organization. Approximately 40 percent of youth volunteers say they became involved simply because they were approached by an organization.

In other words, simply exposing youths to opportunities, perhaps having them talk to recruiters, often can lead to volunteerism.

They were asked by someone in a school or organization they are involved in.

Approximately 21 percent of youths get involved because people in school ask them. Schools and other organizations in which youths are involved can be effective tools to involve youths in volunteer efforts. School officials should be aware of this, and consider inviting recruiters to talk to students.

They were asked by relatives or friends. Approximately 16.5 percent of youth volunteers report that they became involved because they were asked by people they knew, particularly by friends and family. Directly communicating an expectation for service, or providing direct communication, can encourage youths to volunteer.

Becoming involved in causes that help other people is an essential component of positive youth development. The experience of volunteering provides youths with the social and practical skills that can help them succeed in life, and get them engaged and more invested in their own communities. While youths today are engaged in a host of activities such as sports and other endeavors, volunteerism can help youths in many unique ways and have innumerable benefits for development. Below are some suggestions on how parents, educators and other adults can encourage youths to volunteer.

Provide youths with information about volunteer opportunities. One of the top reasons that youths do not volunteer is very simple - they do not have the information about opportunities. Parents and involved adults should help youths find opportunities in their own communities, schools, local organizations and churches. It might just take a few phone calls, visits to volunteer sites, or even searches on the internet to receive more information. Adults should also help youths consider their choices. This includes studying available information to make sure that the activities are safe, lead by competent people, that experiences offered are engaging, and that activities are well organized.

Invite/Ask/Encourage youths to volunteer. After finding information about volunteer opportunities, it is also important to invite the youths to volunteer, or to directly communicate expectations for service to others. Many youths report that they did not think of volunteering because nobody ever asked them.

Help youths work through practical barriers. Go through the practical issues and logistics of how the child/youths could actually volunteer.

Help them think about and work through issues such as scheduling, transportation, how to put in an application (if there is one), and other steps entailed in volunteering. For instance, the top reason youths do not volunteer is lack of time. Parents can help youths structure their time better, and consider the amount of time they might want to commit to volunteer work.

Help youths find an opportunity that fits his or her interest/skills. Many youths drop out of volunteering because the activity is too hard, too easy or simply uninteresting. There are a host of opportunities that can match each person's interests and skills. Consider whether the potential volunteer enjoys face-to-face interactions (e.g., mentoring) or solitary activities (e.g., community gardening). Also, try to help youths find volunteer opportunities that are age-appropriate.

Alert youths to the rewards of volunteering. While the essence of volunteering is really to provide service without rewards, there are some tangible benefits that youths can get out of volunteering. Alert youths to these practical benefits. For instance, point out to youths that they can gain skills that might improve their marketability, and that volunteer activities enhance their resume. These benefits might make them more attractive to future employers or colleges. Many schools also have service learning components, so youths might actually get school credit for their services.

Be a role model. It goes without saying that parents and other adults can encourage youths to volunteer by being volunteers themselves. Getting youths to volunteer is more effective if the person asking sets a good example. If the person asking is a volunteer or volunteered in the past, youths are more encouraged to volunteer.

Make it a family event. Parents are always looking for ways to have family time, and to find activities that the whole family can do together.

Finding a volunteer activity, or even starting their own, could be a great opportunity for a family to be involved in something together.

Perhaps a family can think of something to do each month to help others.

- Source: Youth Volunteerism, University of Nebraska by Maria R. T. de Guzman.



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