Becoming a responsible citizen is only one reason your child should get involved now. In fact, the rewards young volunteers reap are often as great as the ones they give to others.
What Kids Learn
According to Peter Levine, who directs the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning at Tufts University, kids who volunteer are more successful in school and more likely to graduate from high school and college. This may be because most service opportunities teach kids essential school — and life — skills like “long-range planning, working in groups, interacting with people who are different from yourself, and defining and solving complex problems.” Kids who volunteer are also challenged to figure out how to manage their own time and are empowered to do something to right wrongs. Kids see and hear about terrible things — natural disasters, disease, poverty — and giving them an outlet to help others in need reminds them that they can make a difference.
Where to Start
Make volunteering a family effort when possible, especially for younger children who need support in a strange environment. Levine notes, “Most volunteering opportunities — especially ones that are well organized — are managed by institutions, such as churches and other religious congregations, schools, libraries, unions, and fraternal associations.” He recommends starting with organizations you may already have a connection to, and to be sure to follow your child’s interests, like the environment, animals, and issues in the news. National organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Keep America Beautiful, or the American Red Cross also often have local efforts and established volunteer networks.
Planning Your Volunteer Schedule
Be realistic about your child’s abilities and time commitment when choosing an opportunity. Obviously, your 6 year old will not last a full-day shift at a food pantry. That’s OK — start with an hour and work it up to a longer commitment as he gets older. Choose a place that’s used to kid volunteers since the experience is as important as the result.
Why to Volunteer — From a Family That Does
Thirteen-year-old Riley, who volunteers for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, first got involved when a friend was diagnosed with cancer and now swears that he won’t stop “until there’s a cure.” In four years, he’s grown his efforts to involve several members of his community and most recently raised $40,000 for children’s cancer research in one event. It’s apparent when speaking to Alex and his mother that it’s not just his fundraising abilities that have grown through his volunteer work.
This mature, well-spoken teen is modest about his own efforts but quick to give credit to his supportive family and friends. His mother notes that volunteering “gives him a different depth as a person” and this is clear in his straightforward explanation of why we should all get involved: “Kids should volunteer because there are other kids who really need them.”
For Riley this fight is very personal — he has experienced four friends who have faced cancer. I wondered if his mother thought this was too much of an emotional strain on kids, but she soon corrected this assumption: "We don't give them the credibility they deserve — it's empowering. As a parent I'm grateful that all the energy he gets from the turmoil of seeing his friends go through this is channeled into his volunteer work."