Help teenagers make a difference
October 27, 2008 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I have about a hundred teenagers in a room for about two to four hours. What type of service project could we do on-site that would require little capital (less than $100), but could make a difference in someone's life here or somewhere around the world? We have lots of energy and time, but are lacking money and transportation.
posted by roaring beast to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Write letters to soldiers?
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:27 PM on October 27, 2008

Writing letters to Congress.
posted by rhizome at 12:27 PM on October 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Along those same lines, my high school had a group that would write letters on behalf of Amnesty International.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 12:47 PM on October 27, 2008

We recently did a service project where we made nice notecards to send to soldiers who would then use those notecards to write to their family/friends back home. Here's a link that talks about this type of project.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:12 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

A note about letter writing: my little brother’s very social justice-oriented Catholic high school required National Honor Society members to write letters on behalf of Amnesty International as part of a service project. It made him really cynical about progressive causes because he felt that he was forced to do something with an ideological bent when the task should have been apolitical (or at least, the ideology should be explicitly acknowledged). He didn’t object to writing letters, he objected to having Amnesty International chosen for him. I don’t mean to knock Amnesty International, I’m just suggesting sensitivity to the implications of choosing a particular organization with a specific ideology.

I think that the letter writing suggestion is great in terms of fitting your criteria, but I hope there’s a way to give the teens a bit of agency in choosing whom to write. Then again, that might require more resources than $100 will buy (you’d probably want internet access for everyone).

Alternatively, I wonder if you could use your 2-4 hours to have the teens come up with a plan for something bigger than $100 in a single location: like, they could choose a goal (food drive? clothing drive? fundraiser for some cause? something more specific to your community?) and figure out how to make it happen (identify existing non-profits to team up with, split into teams for different functions contributing to the event, etc.). You don’t specify exactly who these teens are, or why you have them in one place for a couple hours, so maybe this wouldn’t be possible. But your issue of not having funds or transportation made me think that it could be good for the kids to learn how to solve those types of problems along the way to a bigger service project goal.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:14 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second the letters to Congress part. For the most part the writers will get an official response on Senate or House letterhead. If you write to the Washington D.C. offices the responses will take several extra weeks to arrive as postal mail to Congressional offices is checked and cleared before being delivered. Congressmen will have one or more local offices you can write to and you'll get the same nice letterhead response, but a whole lot faster. You can also email in your letters through the member's website, just check and These responses will come even faster. Just add a note at the end of each submission that you request a reply via postal mail. State legislative bodies and governors are also a good idea. You could even do a cool experiment and have half of the students mention that their letter is part of a group service project, and half write just as individual citizens and see which group gets fewer/more responses and which gets detailed/form letters. I highly recommend letting them pick their subjects and recipients.

From what I remember of my Amnesty letter writing days in high school, Amnesty doesn't/didn't want citizens to write letters to their own country. That means airmail letters or bulk airmail packages of letters. We used to buy prepaid airmail stationary for $0.50 that we folded up to form it's own envelope, I don't know if those are still available. Amnesty's website will give you all the info you need on causes and leaders to write to.

Domestic mail letters to Congress will be cheaper, email even cheaper still.
posted by Science! at 1:29 PM on October 27, 2008

Instead of letters, what about Christmas cards for soldiers/elderly folks/poor families? You could buy $100 worth of supplies and have them make their own. I've done this project where people donate old cards, and you cut off the signature page, and reuse the cover.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:47 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go in a different direction--social marketing. Contact local media, TV, radio, etc. and have the teens create a bunch of Public Service Announcements using the media's equipment, and then to be played on their stations. I've done something similar, and it's great fun!

As far as logistics go, you could prep some messages ahead of time along with a variety of social justice issues. Then divide the groups up by interest, and have them write, practice, and record their PSAs.

Great fun, good marketing op for the stations, and usually they're open to that sort of thing.

Some issues: homelessness, runaways, teen pregnancy, STD/HIV prevention, bullying, making healthy decisions, peer pressure, depression/anxiety/stress/suicide, eating disorders, body image, smoking, drugs, alchol, exercise, nutrition, eating healthy at school, LGBT rights, money management, communication, gang violence, domestic violence, partner violence, date rape, etc. etc. etc.
posted by Stewriffic at 1:51 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Roll plastic cutlery in napkins to be used by homeless shelters when they serve holiday meals. Napkins and plastic ware are cheap. When we did this, we printed up computer labels that said "Happy Holidays, Love ______". Use the labels to hold the roll together and add a bit of holiday cheer. Any shelter that feeds people will be thrilled to have them.
posted by pearlybob at 2:30 PM on October 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

At our school we did a thing for the local SPCA. We folded newspapers or something for the animals to defecate on.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 6:35 PM on October 27, 2008

Thanks so far everyone. The letter writing is good but might be a little too inactive for some. I'd also like to stay as apolitical as possible, though obviously everything involves politics on some level.

The cutlery idea sounds like a possibility.

Just to clarify, everything would voluntary, so no one would have to do anything they didn't want to. That was a good point to raise, though, MegMurray.
posted by roaring beast at 7:48 PM on October 27, 2008

Some random ideas...

Thank you notes. Introduce it as something that is often neglected, but nonetheless important to thank the people that have helped us to get where we are today, in some small way and that for the vast majority of people, thank you notes are appreciated and are kept for years and perhaps some personal anecdotes illustrating this if you have any.

To them, it may seem a bit silly, but I have no doubt the people who receive these notes will be touched.

And along the lines of fun things to do on a budget, maybe some guerrilla post-it noting... writing short poems on post it notes and sticking it in random places. Bus stops, walls, if they're feeling daring, a grocery store, which will let them a) express themselves and b) help them critique society a bit which is important at those formative years. It can range from silly things to amuse people who may read them, or trying to get a random passerby to snap out of a daily routine and maybe subtly affect them via a short note.
posted by perpetualstroll at 8:47 PM on October 27, 2008

How about making cheerful cards to go on the meal trays at the local children's hospital. Lots of scope to be fun and creative. (You will need to talk about appropriate messages - go for "Have a Happy Day" not "Get Well Soon" since don't know if they will get better or not.)
posted by metahawk at 10:44 PM on October 27, 2008

Another thought: have them make a board game for little kids (maybe K-2) that teaches something. Poster board, scissors, markers, 3x5 cards, brads for spinners. This would be a good one to do in teams of 2-3. You can consult with some local elementary school teachers and put together a sheet that lists out the kind of information that should be included in the game. (separate ones for each game option - different math facts, vowel sounds, social studies) Talking to the teachers would also give you buy-in that the games will actually be used.

Of course, you can set up workstations in different parts of the room so the kids can pick what they want to do and move on to a different one when they get bored. (Of course they should finish the actual item they are working on but most of these ideas they do several in the amount of time you have.)
posted by metahawk at 10:52 PM on October 27, 2008

If you could get some donated knitting needles and wool.....
what about something like this.
Wrap with love

Knitting is the new... um... yo-yo...

Lots of fun and lots of laughs and young guys love to be involved in secret women's business.
posted by taff at 10:55 PM on October 27, 2008

Homeless folks need socks and soap.

See if you can find cheap socks (maybe at a dollar store) and inexpensive bars of soap. You can bundle them up as gifts for homeless folks.

Also budget in the cost of construction paper and allow the teens to create their own packaging for the goodies.

Donate these to a shelter, or if you're in an area where there are homeless folks nearby, consider allowing the teens to hand these out themselves. While some of the homeless will not exude a hallmark-story sweet ending , it's a good opportunity for the teens to experience what it feels like to be on the giving end of things. Brings up lots of issues for them to discuss/consider about life/choices/situations.
posted by mightshould at 5:19 AM on October 28, 2008

100 teenagers and two to four hours? You need active engagement and lots of it!

Spend the money on markers and some Post-It Tear-off Whiteboards.

Separate the group into the smallest teams you think would be humanly possible. 5 would be good, but 7-10 is likely more manageable with teenagers.

Each team spends X amount of time coming up with 10 tangible ways in which they could improve their lives or the lives of those around them. For the last 5 minutes of the time allotted they vote for the top 5 ideas. Each team then picks a spokesperson.

Now pair each team with another team. Each spokesperson presents their top 5 ideas. The group then discusses and evaluates each idea. They vote on the top 5 from that batch.

And so on, until you have the final group of 100 together with the 10 best ideas on one sheet of paper. Everyone votes via secret ballot for the best idea from the collective.

At this point you'll be out of time (and likely exhausted) but if you're lucky, a handful, or maybe even more of the teens will take up the idea and see it to fruition after the event. It'd be killer if you could get someone from the local paper to cover the event in hopes of potentially raising some awareness/funds to give the core group a bit of a leg up.
posted by dizzycow at 6:13 AM on October 28, 2008

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