Do kids care about volunteering?
December 12, 2007 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Did you volunteer as a child? Or do you work now with a children's volunteer group? Tell me what you know about youth service.

I am collecting information about extracurricular service clubs for children and young people -- specifically, organizations that are designed to support school-aged youth as they pursue volunteer work and personal development. I am interested in both the organizations that are school-sponsored, and those that stand alone.

Obvious U.S. examples would be the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Camp Fire USA, and 4-H -- but, I am interested in learning about youth volunteer culture from everywhere, doesn't have to be North American.

Were you involved with such a club or activity? Was it a national or local org? What was your experience like? How do you feel it affected your attitude as an adult? Do you have a child involved with a service club? What are the demographics of that org like? How do the teenagers stay motivated, once the distraction of dating kicks in? (How do Eagle Scouts stay motivated that whole time, for example? Is that a function of the boy or the program?)

One challenge I've had in my research is finding totally or mostly secular organizations. There are plenty of service-oriented groups with religious affiliations or objectives (such as Awana, Young Life, and basically every church's youth program), but I am especially curious about secular projects, which have been harder to find. Do you know of any in your area?

Any personal experiences, links or resources -- religious or secular -- are welcomed!

Bonus question since we're already talking about children and volunteering: did you, or does a student you know now, have a compulsory volunteer requirement in secondary school?

(Hope this doesn't seem like I'm cheating with one meeeelllion questions. I just want to clarify that I am looking for a broad spectrum of information about youth in service; you don't have to have been an Eagle Scout, or have a kid in Camp Fire, to respond.)
posted by pineapple to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Our high school had National Honor Society (known to most as NHS). My understanding was that different chapters have different service requirements, but members at our school did a lot of service hours in their junior and senior years of high school. I think the motivation for most was to look good on college applications, with maybe a smidgen of actual altruism in some.

Our school also required that each student complete 6 hours of community service during their senior year to graduate. Again, it felt more like an obligation than a learning experience. I volunteer quite a bit as an adult, and I enjoy it very much, but I didn't get much out of it when it was required in my teen years.
posted by vytae at 10:34 AM on December 12, 2007

I was a member of the National Honor Society, and one of the activities open to us in which I participated was tutoring grade school kids in reading. The various elementary schools in the district sent the high school a list of kids who were reading at below grade level and were in danger of being left back. I was assigned two different kids, and I really "connected" with the one. He was a little boy who was crazy about baseball, so I went to the library and got some easy-reader-type baseball biographies and sat with him two hours per week. To be honest, I didn't really notice any particular improvement, but a few months later when I arrived for his session, his mom greeted me (we went to their houses) with a huge grin and then showed me the "Smile-O-Gram" he'd gotten from his teacher; he'd gotten an A on an English test. I guess they call this type of thing "mentoring" today, but it does, apparently, actually make a difference with some kids.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:01 AM on December 12, 2007

I didn't do any volunteering until high school. Then, I got interested in psychology and thought I might want to be a therapist, and I began volunteering at Crisis Hotline of Houston. They were somewhat under the auspices of United Way, which may be a good place to look for more info about secular volunteer opportunities.

There was about 60 hours of training before I actually hit the phones, but I volunteered there for two or three years, mostly on the Teenline. That was actually really good training for life and relationships, even though I didn't end up becoming a psychologist. Sometimes it was a bit scary, but there was always adult backup around, and it was a great responsibility for a somewhat-troubled teen to have.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:01 AM on December 12, 2007

Define middle school and junior high (Gulf Coast, southern US), I volunteered at the local library. We (about a dozen volunteers, I think) helped shelve books, helped plant a new garden, occasionally helped them set up when they had presentations, like story time for the kiddies. We also reviewed books for our own age group and recommended whether the library should order copies. There were high school students involved, but I didn't stay with it once I got to high school...I got a paying job.

I couldn't say whether it had a huge impact on my adult life; I mean, I love to read, but that was true before I volunteered - it's how I got involved (the recommendation thing).
posted by solotoro at 11:01 AM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: Were you involved with such a club or activity?Yes, Girl Scouting, as well as volunteering at the local hospital (candystriping), at the local theatre as an usher, and for various ad hoc gigs.

Was it a national or local org?
Scouting was national, the rest local.

What was your experience like?
Fantastic, a fundamental shaper of the course my life took in years following.

How do you feel it affected your attitude as an adult?
Well, SCouting was recreational as well as service-oriented. It was just plain fun to hang out with your best friends and get to do special things. The backstage opportunities were very attractive - being given special roles at events, putting on big dos and fundraisers. As a theater usher I met most of the performers and lots of arty people. At the hospital I was given serious responisbilities and saw lots of serious things. Because it was fun, it helped me to value group and community activity as part of my life, a great way to socialize and meet people.

It also helped create, or at least reinforce, the service ethic that's still part of my life, and group management and participation skills that come in handy in the adult world.

Do you have a child involved with a service club?What are the demographics of that org like?
No kids.

How do the teenagers stay motivated, once the distraction of dating kicks in? (How do Eagle Scouts stay motivated that whole time, for example? Is that a function of the boy or the program?)
If anything, it was a welcome respite from the miseries of the high school social and dating world. I stayed involved in Scouting and arts volunteering right through high school until graduation (incidentally, the Girl Scouts have The Gold Award as the highest achievement in Girl Scouting)

As far as Scouting, which was single-sex, the attractions for me were many. First, there were travel opportunities. Like a lot of teens, I was desperate to have real experiences and get out into the world beyond my town. I joined a group within our Council that was a backpacking program - we had a series of hikes monthly all year round, overnights and weekenders in the surrounding states, culminating each summer in a two-week backpacking trip somewhere like the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, or the Smokies. I was picking up a lot of excellent outdoor skill that I really rely on, and hanging out with my friends in awesome places. Incidentally, we met a lot of guys this way and had fun flirting in that summer-fling way. However, I should add that being with a group of young women was in itself a good thing at that age - we talked about our relationships, sexual development, personal development, goals and ambitions, and identities in a really good and helpful way, without fear about or interference by the opposite sex. There's a real usefulness to that.

Aside from the hiking trips, there was also a program called Wider Opportunities in which you could travel worldwide to represent Scouting in your region and take part in educational programming.

When we did devote our time to volunteer activities, such as assisting at a center for developmentally delayed youth, tutoring and mentoring younger girls, visiting the hospital, or assisting in community projects, the reasons were the same as any adult might hav: fun, a social opportunity, skill-building, resume building, getting out of the house, meeting new people, the special glow of doing good and feeling like an important part of the community. Add to that being treated with respect, 'like an adult,' which I think was a large motivator.

Ushering and hospital work were ways for me to meet people of all ages and backgrounds. With the theatre, I liked being associated with an arts project, which fit my artsy identity, and helping bring more cultural life to the community. With the hospital, it was much more a resume point. It wasn't very social, but it was an excellent environment for building job skills, and fascinating.

did you, or does a student you know now, have a compulsory volunteer requirement in secondary school?
A lot of kids I work with do.

Since you seem to be wondering how to get kids to get involved and stay involved in community work, I'll offer the following, which comes from working with a lot of volunteer youth in my adult career.

-Look up information about adolescent cognitive and social development. It's helpful, in planning programs, to understand that teens aren't 'just crazy' - it's appropriate, developmentally, for them to act the way they do. They are completing cognitive tasks that help them prepare for adult life.
-It has to be fun and social. One of the primary needs of adolescents is to develop and define identity and learn to relate to others meaningfully. Since they will strive to do this no matter what your agenda, your agenda has to accommodate their need if you want to get anything done.
-Motivation is important. If you have their buy-in, kids will do anything. If you don't, they'll be listless and begrudging. Working with kids who have elected to participate is a far, far better scenario for the leader than working with kids who are mandated to do so.
-If the kids are mandated, find a way to get their buy-in. Create an incentive program, have a party at the end, or a t-shirt, something to aim for. Find a way to honor them and make their work fun along the way.
-Find ways to give responsibility beyond what they've had in school, sports, etc. They recognize that as a growth opportunity.
-Understand that they are consciously seeking mentors, connections, and life experience that will be useful in work and/or college. Be clear with them that you understand that, and if they aren't thinking about volunteering like that just yet, they should be.Emphasize what they have to gain if all goes well. Tell success stories ("so-and-so started out volunteering here and now she set up a soup kitchen in her college a job doing that hired for a fabulous job and heard it was because of her volunteer experience"...etc)
-Have a sense of humor.
-Leaders should be confident, prepared, and comfortable with themelves. Teens can smell fakeness and incompetence, and don't respect either.
-Expose kids to as many new people and experiences as the work allows. Introduce them to the key people where they are volunteering and let the key people describe their life and work and how they got into it and why they like it. Let kids meet and talk to people they are serving, if that's appropriate. Help them see where this fits on a life trajectory, how they help others and are being helped.

I'm still a big volunteer and my nonprofit depends on volunteer help. Can't say enough for volunteerism. Good luck with your project.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on December 12, 2007

4-H, being state government sponsored, is about as secular as you can get. They have been modernizing lately, trying to develop programs that would interest kids who rarely see a patch of grass, let alone a farm. My daughter is in a 4H Horse Club and they do several service projects each year, usually volunteer work for horse related concerns.
posted by COD at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2007

I worked in children's community theatre for years as a teenager. I taught younger kids in classes, appeared in shows about not smoking that we toured to schools, and helped organize bigger productions that we put up in theatre's downtown. It was fantastic, it kept me out of (most kinds of) trouble and introduced me to a wide range of people. As far as dating, it wasn't discouraged, we all dated each other. At my high school we were required to volunteer at least 10 hours a year, plus we had an extra-curricular theatre requirement. I went to an art magnet school, and those theatre hours had to be at the school, my community theatre hours did not count. My parents were also required to volunteer at least 5 hours a year at the school.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 12:16 PM on December 12, 2007

The Duke of Edinburgh Award is a popular program with Canadian schools these days.

I don't know about American schools, but high schools in Ontario require students to log 40 hours of community service in order to get their diploma.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: Did you volunteer as a child?
Yes, mostly in high school (parochial/Catholic).

Were you involved with such a club or activity?
The majority of my volunteering time came as a senior, when we were expected to spend X number of hours doing it. Luckily, this took place during our daily religion class, and the school bussed us to one of three locations. One was a nursing home, one was a school for developmentally challenged kids, and the other one escapes me.

And as part of my Confirmation classes, we were also required to volunteer, but it was on your own with many more choices to pick from. I did a few turns cooking/serving at our local soup kitchen to meet my hourly goals.

I did a few hours as part of CYO with my church, but that was mostly an excuse to hang with friends - again, that was at soup kitchen-type places in town. I did an 8-hour stint on a Habitat for Humanity house which I LOVED.

What was your experience like?
The Confirmation-one seemed forced to us all - many students managed to complete the course and not complete their hours. "You better volunteer, or you aren't a real Catholic!" Hey, wait a second, that doesn't seem to reflect our faith.

The school-mandated (in-class) one I actually enjoyed. The nursing home only had one lucid resident, and we all flocked to him. He'd sit outside and smoke cigarettes and tell us crude jokes and even let some students have smokes off him, and vice versa. The school volunteering really touched me, because there was this kid, Nate, who could barely see, deaf, and who knows else was wrong with him. In a few days, he managed to learn a little more in math because I'd stick with him more than the 3-4 other kids in the class (he needed the most attention), and he'd throw a fit when our time was up and try to follow me out the door. I still wonder what became of him and if he did any better.

After that one turn with Habitat, I've done it two more times since. That's my favorite thing to do, since it seems more tangible to me - handing out trays of food was nice, but in 8 hours of sweating I put up siding, painted some doors, and added shrubs to a needy family. If I could, I'd do at least one Habitat build a year.

How do you feel it affected your attitude as an adult?
Sad to say, it's not caused a conversion/re-born feeling in me...I hate I don't do it as much as I used to, but I'm trying to do better with it.

Do you have a child involved with a service club?
She's not old enough - 11-month-olds can't do too much volunteering. But I'd try to push her to at least give it some thought as she grows older, and maybe seeing her parents doing it might get her motivated.
posted by fijiwriter at 12:56 PM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: When I was about 5 my mom took me to an orphanage. We went as a family, and the idea was to hang out and play with the kids there. It was terrifying. Until then, I didn't realize that some children didn't have parents, or that some parents wouldn't want their kids. It was also my first exposure to children with physical or mental disabilities. I'm told that these visits were a regular family thing and that we went about once a month, but I don't remember them very much except for the initial visit.

After that, I didn't do much until around 6th grade, when I was old enough to choose my own after school activities. I did various things, and kept doing them in high school and college. Cleaning local parks, clearing abandoned lots, helping out at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, mental health facility, hospitals, schools, tutoring, mentoring, etc. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Made me feel like I was a contributing member of society, and that what I did mattered and was important. That was a pretty big realization as a kid. As for how to stay motivated once the hormones kick in, well, most of these activities are co-ed. I remember there was one program that I participated in several times in high school, where you spent the weekend in NYC. We brought our sleeping bags and we all slept in a school gym. Hormones were quite motivating, actually.
All of these were secular, local organizations. Most non-profits, such as soup kitchens, etc., have a volunteer office, and also provide training, if needed. Some were through my school, but most weren't. I just found them on my own, or found out about them through friends.

My 5-year-old is currently in a "service" club. She makes arts and crafts projects and gives it to people who might need an extra smile. I think it's a brilliant way of introducing the idea of giving, and the concept that one person can do something to help out someone else who may not be as fortunately as she.

Bonus question since we're already talking about children and volunteering: did you, or does a student you know now, have a compulsory volunteer requirement in secondary school?

When I was a student, the administrators of my secondary school really wanted to make volunteering compulsory. The students voted it down. I think the school currently has one, but I don't know how effective it is. When I volunteered, some of the kids I met would complain that they were there only because it was a school requirement. These kids generally did a bad job of whatever it was they had to do and ruined it for everyone else.
posted by jujube at 1:16 PM on December 12, 2007

have a compulsory volunteer requirement in secondary school?

If it's compulsory, it's NOT volunteering. Schools that have such requirements should accurately call them "required community service," or similar.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:52 PM on December 12, 2007

I collected for UNICEF at halloween when I was a kid and I also did a walkathon and had to scope out the neighborhood for pledges. I don't know where the little boxes for UNICEF came from, school probably. Collecting on the pledges for the walkathon after I finished was very difficult. I don't think they do it the same way anymore, but when I was a kid you got the committment and then you had to go back to those sponsors and show them your mile marker card and collect. Many, many people reneged on their pledge and that was difficult because the organization still expected me to come up with the money from the committments. I liked UNICEF better and I thought it was a great way for kids to help kids and to see the power of small change.

I don't think my local schools have compulsory volunteer programs, but many students are advised to do something to pad out their college applications. Let's hope their heart is in it and they aren't just in it for the line item on a college application.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:20 PM on December 12, 2007

I volunteered at the YMCA for many years as a child. I think I started at age 10 or 11. They had a lot of different youth service programs.
posted by catseatcheese at 3:57 PM on December 12, 2007

Best answer: To answer your last question first, International Baccalaureate has a 100 hour compulsory service requirement attached to it, and while it's sometimes known mainly as a European group, I was in IB as an American high schooler. Also, my college (I know, I know, it's post-secondary) had a 100-hour compulsory requirement for graduation, which I fulfilled by volunteering in the America Reads program.

As for the rest...Yes, I was involved in Girl Scouts, which I think did the retirement home visit thing. Fat lot of waste of time, for the most part (NOT the retirement visits, Scouts in general). I don't think Girl Scouts as a whole had a great deal of influence on me as a person.

I did volunteer a great deal in middle school (also compulsory). These things weren't on the national level, but local things (for example, my mother dragooned me into doing storytime with the younger kids at the library where she worked).

In high school, I needed to get those 100 hours done, so I volunteered *everywhere*. Not only that, CSF (California Scholarship Federation) had compulsory service req's and I was a member all four years. So, add in another 20 hours a year, that's 180 hours total service time in high school: libraries, retirement homes, beach clean-ups, canned food drives, etc.

In college, add soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, and animal shelters (this stuff was voluntary, though) plus America Reads.

So I guess that the service, compulsory or not, caused me to keep seeking out opportunities to serve.

No children, thank you. As for teenagers, though others definitely disagree, I really see the value of compulsory service to others, especially during this very self-absorbed age. I dated an Eagle Scout during high school, and the way he stayed motivated was by doing a service project that he was able to see benefiting the community, by doing it at our high school. So that plays into things as well.

But I really think a tradition of service from a young age will cause many people, teens included, to keep up with that tradition later in life.
posted by librarylis at 1:53 AM on December 13, 2007

I have worked with volunteers, directly, for about 14 years of my professional career. Here are some of the big questions to think about:

There can be age restrictions based on the type of volunteer work that is requested. Rightfully so. You do not want children volunteering at a soup kitchen for several reasons: working in a real, working kitchen can be dangerous, working with a population that is known for unpredictable behavior because of mental health or substance abuse issues, etc. Likewise, some insurance policies do not cover children in the workplace.

Have you considered building a service learning curriculum to make the volunteer experience as rich as possible? Many folks do not know the difference between Community Service and Service Learning.

Have you talked to Points of Light Foundation? They have some great resources.

Feel free to email me (at my profile email address) if I can assist further.
posted by zerobyproxy at 5:42 AM on December 13, 2007

In Malaysia there isn't quite a big emphasis on high-school volunteering. We do have a Moral Studies class, which has received lots of criticism because it's too rigid and relies on memorizing exact values. Some schools have reacted by changing that subject into a service-learning type model.

Charity work tends to be along the lines of donating money, events, or walkathons. My secondary school English Language Society (along with those of other schools) would host events to raise money for the Spastic Kids Foundation or the School for the Blind.

I was a member of the Girl Guides but it was more recreational rather than service-based. I think the scouts vying for the main award (Gold?) were the ones that did service projects.

I was also a member of Interact, which was supposed to be about service (it's the high-school division of Rotary). However, the club in my school was more interested in organizing big parties and sucking up our money. Never did a service project while I was at school with them. My school's more of an oddity with this; most other schools would have very active Interact/Kiwanis/Leo Club branches that do plenty of service.

The Red Cross cadets in my school/district were extremely active (particularly one of my good friends that became Head) organizing blood donations and meets and trainings and all that. The Police Cadets would help with traffic control during school events.
posted by divabat at 7:35 AM on December 13, 2007

I have been doing charity work for as long as I can recall. I was raised and educated by Jesuits, so that explains it, short answer-style. I also belonged to Interact, the Rotary High School Service Program, as well as the NHS, which incorporated volunteer work. Even before that, though, seriously, for as long as I remember, I had it pounded daily into my brain that I was one lucky youngster, and that I had to demonstrate my gratitude for how great my life was by doing good works for others. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic, that attitude of good works has stuck with me my entire life, and I continue to volunteer compulsively for nearly every opportunity that comes along.
I know that this is not the secular route that you were looking for, but I was providing my personal anecdote, since you said they were welcome. I can offer you this, though: all of the high schools in my local school district (Chapel Hill, NC) require all students to do a certain number of service learning hours that are needed to pass into the next grade. You also have to complete a certain number of service learning hours (read: volunteer) in order to graduate from high school. I know this because I volunteer at one of the high schools.
posted by msali at 10:55 AM on December 13, 2007

(I'm in Australia)
A lot of young people I know have spent time working on a soup van for poor/homeless people in inner-city Melbourne, run by St Vincent de Paul's society, and related activities, but they were all religious. Secular programs: many of my friends in high school were Scouts/Venturers (unisex in Australia), and stayed motivated partly as the kind of person who just does everything, and partly because it was a very social group, with positive peer pressure. I did the Duke of Edinburgh program through school which (among other things) involves a certain number of hours of community service for each level, and through that I started coaching junior school sports teams. And my brother is involved in a variety of charities, such as the Starlight Foundation, collecting for the Red Cross, CanTeen ( for kids and teenagers affected by cancer) - I think most of his connections began when he was invited to Lord Somers camp, which is a sort of leadership program/summer camp for teenagers nominated by their teachers - he went back as a leader when he stopped being a kid there, and the same facilities and people organise summer/weekend camps for a number of disadvantaged childrens groups. I think they're all national groups, but it would have been a state division.

For the general question of how people stay motivated 'once dating kicks in' - I haven't noticed that that has been a significant issue. Every group I can think of is unisex, so you have a mixed social group within the activity, and I guess I can't really imagine dropping stuff I was interested in 'to date' anyway.
posted by jacalata at 5:46 AM on December 19, 2007

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