Friday, September 7, 2012

Generation Volunteer: Creating Opportunity for Youth Engagement

By Liz McLachlan
development associate
Lighthouse of Oakland County
 Calen Knight is no ordinary nine year old. Last June, she independently organized a school-wide food drive which she donated to Lighthouse of Oakland County's emergency food pantry in Michigan. The project was part of a charity she helped created called, which she founded at the age of eight. 

"My parents have taught me that I am so lucky to have many nice things like toys, books, DVD's, and new clothes. So, now I want to help other children have something to smile about too," says Calen. The goal of is to create awareness within other children in hopes that they will also realize their good fortune and become inspired to lend a helping hand.

Calen with emergency pantry supplies
Calen’s early commitment to volunteerism is impressive, but not that unusual. In its annual survey, reported that 8.3 million volunteers between the ages of 16-24 dedicated 844 million hours of service to US communities in 2010.

At Lighthouse of Oakland County, we see the start of the new school year as the perfect opportunity to lay the foundation for youth volunteer engagement.  Benefits to the volunteers include:
  • Volunteering can teach skills that they will use later in life.
  • Volunteering can teach them compassion and responsibility, and gratitude for the things they have.
  • Children who volunteer are less likely to engage in risky behavior, more likely to feel connected to their communities, and tend to do better in school. (source: World Volunteer Web)

Boy Scouts from Troop 1032 volunteering in the
Lighthouse food pantry, which serves ~650 people/month
At Lighthouse, our main priority is to develop solid relationships with  local schools, churches, and families. Reaching out to this core audience allows us to share the work we do in a familiar environment known to the children. This is necessary because many have never volunteered before; this is our opportunity to really hear what the student's volunteer interests are. From that point forward, teachers, parents and students are able to identify meaningful projects that resonate with their group.

Does your organization offer projects for younger volunteers and their families?  The following strategies can be incorporated into existing volunteer recruitment, planning, and placement activities to encourage community involvement and adapting volunteer projects for younger volunteers.

1.    Know your audience. Review your current donor base and volunteers actively participating within your organizations. Are there schools, churches, or groups who work with children? Contact these individuals first; invite them to tour your location with their children.

2.    Develop age-appropriate opportunities. One of the biggest mistakes an organization can do is offer an opportunity that is not meaningful to the volunteers. Yes, we all have the "must-get-done" projects, but when you develop a project that leaves a lasting impression, those volunteers will be back. Kids get bored easily, but when they are excited and engaged they will remember that project long after they leave.

3.    Encourage volunteer autonomy. Kids have great ideas. If you are in need of a food drive, get the kids involved in the planning process. The more they "own" their project, the more successful they will be in achieving it.
Lilly created "Parties in a box" to provide
birthday supplies to other children

4.    Planning is key! Families are busy and timing volunteer projects is crucial to successful volunteer engagement. Take time to know school schedules and plan projects around after school hours and planned days off. Offer projects on holiday breaks, teacher development days, and half-days.

5.    Don't forget teams. Do you need a large project completed? Coaches and parents are great resources to help get the work done quickly. Volunteering is a great opportunity for team building.

These are just a few ideas to get started and now it's your turn. We would love to hear how your organization engages kids in community service and volunteer projects.

Please leave a comment below and share your ideas. You can also read more stories of our young volunteers here.