At a time when many are worried that the United States is experiencing a general decline in civic and political engagement, volunteering appears particularly strong among today’s young people, according to LSU AgCenter 4-H youth volunteer expert Dr. Janet Fox.
“Volunteering plays a valuable role in shaping how youth learn to interact with their community and develop the skills, values and sense of empowerment necessary to become active citizens,” Fox says.
The volunteer coordinator notes community service provides a golden opportunity for youth to step out of the ordinary routine and comfort zone to get a wider outlook on life.
“Community service literally develops a sense of community, especially for young people who may not often see how the other half lives,” Fox says. Helping others by volunteering at their local church, serving meals in a soup kitchen, stocking shelves at a food bank, tutoring at a school, cleaning up a local park or building houses for those in need are opportunities to see how others live and to appreciate how much you have.
“Kids learn that any differences they have pale in comparison with all they have in common,” Fox adds.
Parents can take their children on the road, helping to expand good works to other communities. These opportunities often spread the word by e-mail, a town's Web site or the local newspaper.
Young people can learn how to promote a cause by doing their own research or reaching out to others. They can start a blog or publish a newsletter or flier describing community needs, volunteer activities and how others can help.
It’s not hard to expand the scope of a community service project, Fox says, explaining that if a child is interested in doing more, he or she can ask the organization he or she volunteers for if they have additional opportunities or community partners that could also use help.
“It’s a great idea to join others with a community service group – hold a brainstorming session and dream up new service ideas and ways to help the community,” Fox says.
Organizations like 4-H, Boy Scouts and church groups can provide a multitude of service opportunities. These groups focus on helping others along with appealing to youth through fun and educational activities such as sports, crafts and camping.
“As parents, it’s important that you serve as positive role models,” Fox says, adding, “If your child is not inclined to volunteer for community service, volunteer yourself. The things you do create a far more lasting impression on your children than anything you say.”
Families play an important role in volunteering. Many organizations offer special projects meant to be performed by families. Family volunteering offers your child the opportunity to bond with the family while helping the community. A great way to teach values, family volunteering provides important opportunities for family discussions based on needs within your community. In addressing these needs, youth feel a sense of accomplishment as well as learning new skills.
“Community service provides a unique opportunity for young people – from kindergarten to high school – to get involved with their communities in meaningful ways,” Fox says. Service engages students in a process of learning that results from the service in a real-life setting by solving real-life problems.
“Students not only learn about democracy and citizenship, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the services they perform,” Fox says.
Editor: Mark Claesgens