Mixed Messages: What Do We Really Think about Young Volunteers?

By Susan J. Ellis

Over the last month, I’ve received a mini-barrage of e-mails from pre-teens and young teens (ages 9 to 14) plaintively asking for help in finding volunteer opportunities for someone their age. I also recently facilitated a meeting in DC which explored how middle schools might stimulate more creative service-learning assignments from community agencies for their younger students. All of this makes me ask: what do we really think about young volunteers?

It’s easy to “talk the talk.” Proponents of school-based community service want to integrate such activity into every grade, even elementary school. Projects such as “Family Matters” seek to encourage parents to volunteer along with their children of all ages. America’s Promise includes the right of youth “to serve others” as one of its five goals. Are agencies ready to put youngsters to work?

There are lots of conflicting issues here. No one argues the value to the child of learning about volunteering early in life. In fact, research shows that the younger a person is when first experiencing volunteer service, the more likely s/he will be to continue community involvement as an adult. But at the same time, agencies face other factors:

  • Increased concern for risk and liability, both for harm to any client or consumer, and also to any volunteer (let alone very young ones).
  • Child abuse prevention legislation requiring police and background checks on every adult who will be working with a child.
  • Expectations expressed by the school or teachers, with requirements developed without input from the agency.
  • Questions about the abilities of young volunteers, given the public challenges to education today.
  • It’s hard enough to coordinate adult volunteers effectively. What variables will be added (and problems magnified) when the volunteers are young?

There are, of course, various models for involving youngsters in volunteering. Some are:

  • School groups volunteering together under the supervision of their teacher or a faculty advisor. This may be service-learning (integrated into the curriculum) or volunteering as an “enrichment” activity or through a student club.
  • Established youth groups coming together to give service, under the supervision of their adult group leader.
  • Families volunteering as a unit, with the parents right there on site.
  • Youngsters assigned to the same shift, and the agency recruits a college student or older volunteer to be the team leader for this special group.
  • Motivated youngsters applying to volunteer as individuals.

My concerns fall into two categories: logistical and creative. What do agencies need to make the various screening processes, forms for parental permission, arrangements with the schools, and proper insurance coverage EASIER and LESS COSTLY to do and obtain? These and other logistical issues are best tackled collectively, through publicity, position statements, and general legislative advocacy by DOVIAs, state/provincial and national associations, and other groups with clout.

The creative challenges are perhaps more difficult--and are in the control of each director of volunteers. What exactly can a 14-year-old contribute to the organization? How about a 9-year-old volunteer? What skills must be demonstrated? What level of maturity?

If we in the volunteer field don’t want to deal with this age group, let’s say so honestly. But if we truly want young volunteers, we need to step up to the plate and nurture them. This includes advocating that Volunteer Centers and online registries of volunteers create special lists of service opportunities for prospective volunteers under 14. It breaks my heart to keep getting e-mails from pre-teens who feel rejected and hopeless about sharing their talents.

I have always said that volunteering allows people to rise (or fall) to their level of competence, not the level of their age or paper credentials. If a pre-teen wants a paying job, it is guaranteed to be menial. Volunteering offers the chance to do what that young person would never be paid to do. If we cannot welcome the bright, motivated youngster, who can?

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