Youth want to give back. At New York Cares, we have been fielding a growing number of requests for youth-friendly volunteer opportunities, especially from organized groups of teens. The reasons we hear most are:
•School Requirements. New York City public high schools and most private schools require community service hours to graduate, and many have trouble identifying opportunities.
•College Applications. College admissions officers at more than half of the nation’s top 50 schools ranked community service as the fourth most important factor in an application, above reference letters, interviews, and legacy status.
•Natural Disasters. We had hundreds of teens who wanted to volunteer right after Hurricane Sandy.
In the past year we have engaged 13% more youth volunteers (2,600), who filled 26% more volunteer positions (6,300) on projects that address community needs from hunger to education to revitalization. There has also been a lot of action on our web site, where 60% more individuals (1,700 people) have visited in search of youth opportunities.
Many organizations do not tap into the power of youth volunteers due to concerns about liability, the belief that youth volunteers are “more work than they are worth,” or a lack of social media skills at the nonprofit (who can Tweet like a high school kid?). By building systems to engage more youth, especially in groups, New York Cares has seen that it is very much worth the time and effort. Here are a few tips to those who may be considering this strategy:
•Train. Hire staff with experience working with youth and provide clear expectations for program goals and boundaries for practitioner/youth relationships.
•Structure. Just like adult volunteers, youth need clear roles and responsibilities. It is important to go one step further by developing programs that are developmentally appropriate so that students can feel a level of satisfaction that all volunteers deserve.
•Educate. Before volunteer projects, youth volunteers benefit from learning about the social issues that their service will address. After the project, students can deepen their learning by reflecting on how their service contributed to community change and by learning about other means of being involved in their communities. By the way, this isn’t such a bad thing for adults to do before and after a volunteer experience either.
If you’re looking for opportunities for a youth group here in NYC, I hope you will visit our web site. We know that youth volunteers are a valuable way for us to meet the City’s most pressing needs.
Gary Bagley is the Executive Director of New York Cares.