I remember a summer day when I told my 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son that I was taking them to lunch. They were excited and quickly requested their favorite restaurant.
We got into the van and drove off. It didn’t take them long to notice I wasn’t going in the direction they expected me to go. Instead I parked in front of a local soup kitchen with people lined up outside waiting for lunch.
Confused, they asked, “Where are we? I thought we were going to lunch.” I reassured them they would get lunch but after they served lunch to others who couldn’t afford it. They cautiously got out of the van and walked by the line of people waiting and went in.
During the next hour we served lunch to over 150 people and when we were done we joined them to eat the leftovers. When we got back in the van to head home they couldn’t quit talking about what they had just done.
Before taking my children to the soup kitchen I worried about whether they were too young to do what they did, but when it was over I was convinced they weren’t. In fact, research says the earlier kids begin volunteering, the better. Kids who learn early to be caring, compassionate and helpful perform better in school and are more likely to graduate at the top of their class. Teens who volunteer look more attractive on college and scholarship applications. Teens who volunteer just two hours a week are also 50% less likely to use alcohol and cigarettes, become pregnant or engage in other risky behaviors.
Many youth might start volunteering because “they have to” for a school or youth group project. The amazing thing is, once they try it, they love it! Research shows that one positive volunteer experience is more likely to lead to more. Teens report they learn to respect others, to be helpful and kind, to understand people who are different from them, develop leadership skills, become more patient and better understand good citizenship. They feel empowered and valued.
Summer is a great time to connect kids with volunteer opportunities. It’s one of the most important things you can do for them. Volunteer opportunities aren’t hard to find for any age. Consider places of worship, hospitals, libraries, children’s museums, community centers, parks, zoon or local charities. Make volunteering a year-round commitment for students as they would to a sports team, dance, music group or club.
Today, my children are 29 and 26 years of age and since that summer day they have logged in over a thousand hours of volunteer time between both of them. I didn’t know the experience that day would have the long-term impact it did. At the same time, it doesn’t surprise me. My kids aren’t unique. Today’s teenagers volunteer 2.4 billion hours annually. More than one in four teens nationwide does some type of volunteer work. I guess research is right when it says, “Once they try it, they’ll love it!” The question is, “Have your students tried it?”