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Community Service and Volunteering by Teens:
How to Find Opportunities

(how teens can volunteer / how can a teenager volunteer?)

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This page provides detailed information to help teenagers become volunteers (although you don't have to be a teen to find this information useful to become a volunteer). It is updated at least monthly with new information!

Introduction

Teens all over the world want to volunteer. But teens, particularly youth under 18, often have trouble finding opportunities. This page is meant to help connect teens as quickly as possible with volunteering.

Before you begin to search

If you are in country other than the USA, your country may have web sites that lists all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charities that are officially registered with your country's federal government. This page can help you find a web site that lists all officially-registered NGOs and charities in your country.

Registered nonprofits in the USA have a federal tax i.d. number. If you aren't sure if an organization is a registered nonprofit in the USA, ask if they have a federal tax id number, or look up the organization on Guidestar.org, a database of all registered nonprofit organizations in the USA.

Volunteering at a public school or certain government-run programs and agencies (state parks, a prison, a community court, etc.) is also looked on very highly by high schools, universities and potential employers, so don't limit your search only to nonprofits, NGOs and charities.

Some hospitals, senior homes, hospices, group homes and other health care facilities are actually for-profit businesses; because of the clientele that these organizations serve, most universities and others interested in a young person's volunteering experience may still be interested in knowing about volunteering activities you may have undertaken at these specific for-profit organizations. They will not, however, be interested in your working for free at restaurants, day care centers, family businesses, etc.

Helping family with tasks (taking your grandmother to the grocery, cleaning your mother's house, baby sitting your sister's kids, mowing a neighbor's lawn, etc.) will NOT be considered by universities or other organizations as "volunteering;" these are seen as things you should be doing, as a family member, as a neighbor, etc.

Do not wait until the last minute to try to volunteer! You will probably need to call and email several places just to get an appointment for an interview! It may take three or four weeks before you get started volunteering even if you start calling right away! Do not think you are going to call a place today and be volunteering tomorrow morning.

You will be responsible for your transportation to and from a site for volunteering. Start thinking about your transportation now, BEFORE you start asking about volunteering: will you take mass transit? Ride a bicycle? Walk? If someone is going to drive you, has that person already committed to always be available during certain days, and certain times of days?

If you are under 18, you will have to get a parent or guardian to sign a permission slip that affirms you are permitted to volunteer. You will get this permission slip from an organization that wants you to volunteer.

If you are under 16, it will be harder to find volunteering opportunities, because many organizations won't involve anyone under 18 (for liability reasons). If you are under 14, it gets even harder! You will have to do a LOT of research to find volunteering opportunities if you are under 16, but if you are persistent, you will find something (or, perhaps, you can create your own volunteering activity.

Identify what days, and times of days, you are available, as well as the first day and last day you are available. Identify how many hours you are hoping to volunteer each week and each month. Do not think that you will volunteer in your spare time; set a schedule for your volunteering, or it will never happen. You need to identify a time of day at least once a week when you would be available to volunteer. Most organizations don't have tasks laying around waiting for volunteers who, when they might have some time, could just show up and do -- they need to know when volunteers are coming in to do them. Even if you identify just two hours every other Tuesday as when you are available, that's really helpful in getting to volunteer ASAP.

If you don't feel comfortable calling the organization yourself and saying you want to volunteer, YOU ARE NOT OLD ENOUGH TO VOLUNTEER THERE. "If you want to volunteer, call me yourself. Our conversation will be, for all intents and purposes, a job interview. I do not want to talk to your mother unless she's the one looking for the assignment." That's from a letter from a volunteer manager in Denver, Colorado to Dear Abby on May 2, 2011. "My volunteers are the most dedicated, intrepid, compassionate people I have ever met. They succeed because they're enthusiastic and sincere in their desire to contribute. They range in age from 17 to 82, but they all have one thing in common: They picked up the phone and spent time doing their own research."

Volunteering is a real commitment. People are counting on you to do the assignment you take on. If you don't show up for a shift, even if you call ahead, you are putting your job on someone else -- and you are creating work instead of doing work. A volunteer manager or another volunteer will have to step in because you aren't doing what you said you would do - and that means something else isn't going to get done because of your broken commitment. By all means, if an emergency comes up, call in, but if you do that twice, don't be surprised if you are no longer given volunteering hours.

Do not show up at a site unannounced. For instance, don't just show up at a Habitat for Humanity work site and say, "I'm here to volunteer." Do not just show up to a community theater performance an hour before curtain time and say, "I'm here to usher!" You need to call any organization you want to volunteer with at least one week before the date you want to volunteer (two weeks, or even a month, is better!) and go through an organization's formal application and orientation process, and get the okay from the organization regarding your start date.

You will have to be trained for just about any volunteering you want to do, but training will be counted as a part of your volunteering time by whomever may be interested in such (a university, a court, a school, etc.). Training may take 10 minutes. Training may take a full day. Training may take weeks! But, again, training will be counted as a part of your volunteering time, if your school, a class or a judge is requiring you to volunteer.

Be ready to track volunteering hours yourself; use a spread sheet or a paper notebook, and write down the name of organization you assisted, what you did, the day, and how many hours you contributed. When you finish volunteering at an organization, or when you are ready to start filling out college applications, ask the organization you have helped to write a letter on their letterhead confirming how many hours you contributed and what you accomplished (and adding anything else they would like to say). It's a good idea to ask an organization about their policy regarding a letter to confirm your hours BEFORE you start volunteering. And remember: all training activities and meetings count as volunteering hours!

Be honest about any and all convictions when you are filling out your volunteering application. Some volunteer roles will ask for your arrest record as well. An arrest or conviction will NOT necessarily disqualify you from volunteering (it depends on the organization, the type of work it does, the population it serves and the volunteer tasks).

An organization has every right to fire you / let you go as a volunteer, often with no stated reason. They are under no obligation to keep you -- especially if you have missed shifts, violated policies, etc.

If you are seeking volunteering in order to fulfill a community service obligation from a court or school obligation, see this resource.

 
Do You Want to Just Help or to Make a Difference?

There are two kinds of assistance to people

  1. relief/aid/comfort, such as giving food, providing emergency shelter, providing emergency medical aid, putting on a show for sick kids to cheer them up, etc.)
  2. development, such as educating people about HIV/AIDS, educating people about organic farming. providing preventative medical care, etc.).
#1 doesn't change anything long-term or create a widespread or sustainable change - it just helps in an immediate moment. And sometimes, that's exactly what's needed! #2 changes things long-term; it changes people's behavior or changes how people think about something or helps people to not need emergency aid any more. One kind of assistance isn't necessarily better than the other. Some situations call for #1, some call for #2.

When looking for volunteering opportunities, you might want to think about which kind of volunteering you want to do, particularly if you are volunteering for experience that looks good on a CV, for entry into a university, for potential scholarships or for an award of some kind (in which case you would probably want to go for category #2).

But don't think that there are strict borders between these kinds of volunteering; if you volunteered to help create a program that trains volunteers to help in disaster relief, you would be engaging in BOTH kinds of volunteering.

Also, you will probably first be given very simple tasks to do as a volunteer; for higher responsibility roles, you will have to prove yourself as a reliable volunteer in tasks that may not seem as fun or as interesting to you.

 
Where to Find Volunteering Opportunities

There are many web sites where you can find places to volunteer in your community in the USA:

For Canada (for Canadian citizens and residents): For other countries, see this page that lists volunteer centers in various countries.

You can also look for nonprofit organizations you would like to help and contact them directly to see if they have volunteering opportunities. In the USA, you can look at Guidestar.org, a database of all registered nonprofit organizations in the USA; you can look up all the nonprofits in your zip code, or by other criteria. For other countries, see this list of all officially-registered NGOs and charities in various countries (not every country has such a listing).

If you find a nonprofit you would like to help, but don't see a volunteering opportunity listed at that organization that you want to do, call the organization directly, or visit the organization, and tell the staff person you talk to what you would like to do as a volunteer. If a nonprofit or NGO sounds interesting to you, type its name into Google, look at its web site or call the organization, and find out what volunteering opportunities they have available that the may not have listed online.

Present yourself well on the phone or in person. You may want to rehearse what you want to say ("Hello. I'm 14-years-old and I would like to volunteer at your organization. Is that possible? What kinds of volunteering activities may I do?"). If you send an email, be sure to use your spell check function to ensure all words are spelled correctly.

You could also look into leading a group volunteering activity to do with your club members or friends.

Specific Volunteering Ideas

If you are between the ages of 11 and 18 in the USA and there is a Youth Volunteer Corps of America (YVC) office in your community, you can become a volunteer with YVC. See the YVC web site for more information.

Contact the Girl Scouts of the USA that serves your area (or the Girl Guides office for your country) and see if there is a Girl Scout or Girl Guides day camp or single event in your area that you could help with as a volunteer. In the USA, if you are under 18 and a girl, to volunteer will require you to become a Girl Scout (which is a wonderful thing to be!); if you are 18 or over, you do NOT have to be female to volunteer with the Girl Scouts. You need to express interest in volunteering at least two months in advance for many events. Day camps need people to lead hikes, lead craft-making (the crafts are usually already defined, but your recommendations would also be welcomed), lead singing, cook, make posters for the event (with song lyrics, directing girls to craft tables, telling them how to clean up after the event, etc.) and staff the registration table at the start of the event, among many other activities. Events like cookie-kick offs and badge days need volunteers for similar activities.

Nonprofit theaters, community theaters, dance companies, university theater and dance departments, and performing arts centers are often in need of ushers in the evenings and on weekends for performances; you not only get volunteer hours, you get into a show for free! Call these organizations to see if they need volunteer ushers for upcoming performances, and ask if you could sign up to help. Local, non-professional/amateur theater companies also welcome volunteer in a variety of roles, from selling tickets to building sets to selling drinks at intermission to sewing costumes to performing on stage.

In the USA, you might be able to become a GoodGuides Youth Mentor through Goodwill. This is a national mentoring program at 56 Goodwills in 38 states serving young people between the ages of 12 and 17. These young people are matched with adults or peer mentors -- that means other young ages of 12 and 17 -- who help the youth realize their potential and prepare for their future.

Many hospitals involve young volunteers in a variety of roles (though some hospitals do not involve volunteers at all). You may not get to work with patients until you have proven yourself in other roles. Also, you may be required to provide documentation of the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine and recent TB test results (from within the past 90 days of your application). Volunteers may:

  • provide, caring, compassionate assistance to patients and families during their appointments.
  • assist in escorting and transporting patients to certain appointments.
  • direct/escort visitors
  • implement activities for pediatric patients in waiting room
  • assist patients leaving the hospital
  • welcome and facilitate entry of patients and visitors
  • assist patients with comfort needs (pillows/blankets/reading materials/telephone calls)
  • direct visitors to cafeteria, chapel, rest rooms, ATMs, etc.
  • transmit messages from/to visitors to/from patients
  • update and maintain and information area (stock product catalogs, update bulletin boards and reference binders, organize pamphlet racks, etc.)
  • photocopy and distribute materials
  • process information requests and phone requests
  • answer a phone and a operate fax
  • assist administrative specialists
  • staff the hospital gift shop

Each individual chapter of the American Red Cross involves volunteers in a variety of ways. Many chapters are looking for volunteers to help with warming centers in the winter, for instance, for the overflow from homeless shelters on days and nights that are at or below freezing (and unlike most homeless shelters, these often allow the homeless to bring their pets). You could be a volunteer in the office just a few hours a month. You could help at a special event. You could be a volunteer that is on call to help people who have lost their home to a fire. You could train to become a CPR/First Aid trainer. You could be a volunteer driver, taking people with mobility issues to medical appointments. Find your local chapter of the American Red Cross and look at their web site for information about volunteering. You will have to attend an onsite orientation and, depending on the assignment, some training.

Many nonprofits would welcome your help on short-term computer and Internet-related assignments, but you will need to have the appropriate expertise, and you will probably need to propose the idea to a nonprofit yourself -- in fact, probably more than one. Be ready to present yourself in a very professional manner via email to offer your services as such a "tech" volunteer.

Volunteer to support UNICEF. UNICEF's online Volunteer Center provides activity toolkits and speaker resources to help you conduct awareness-building and fundraising activities in your community.

Want to lead your own volunteering activity? This list of ideas for the Girl Scouts Gold and Silver Awards are ALSO good for anyone (not just a Girl Scout) seeking ways to create or lead a sustainable, lasting benefit to a community, to have a leadership role as a volunteer.

Outdoors Volunteering

State parks often have one-day volunteering opportunities throughout the year, as well as ongoing volunteering activities - even youth clubs. Call your nearest state park, and look at the park's web site, for more information. You can also create your own volunteering activity and propose it at a state park. For instance, when I was at the Lewis and Clark Trail State Park in Washington state, I noticed an information panel behind the park's camping facilities, and on closer inspection, it turned out to be information for the start of a small hike to show the edible plants in the park. But the information was quite faded, and the information needed an update. What a great opportunity for a volunteer! And what about creating such a trail and display in a state park near YOU? Call or stop by your local state park and propose the idea.

A state's Department of Fish and Wildlife may have volunteering opportunities. For instance, volunteers with Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife assist with wildlife surveys, habitat improvement, nest box building and monitoring, public education, carpentry, computer and clerical work, and assist at workshops designed to teach introductory hunting and shooting skills, fishing and other outdoor activities to families, women and adults. Volunteers also help with stream habitat restoration work, conduct surveys, and help with education projects. Volunteers can also become certified volunteer instructors and teach basic fishing skills, aquatic conservation and stewardship, ethical conduct, water safety, and safe and responsible hunting techniques.

The Conservation Alliance is a network of businesses that pool together funds and resources to support nonprofit organizations all over the USA that protect forests, mountains, rivers, coasts, praries, canyons and other natural spots for their environmental, habitat and recreation values. You cannot volunteer with the Conservation Alliance, but you can see if there is an organization in your area that has received a grant from the alliance, and then research that organization regarding possible volunteering opportunities. Go to The Conservation Alliance web site and look under "Grantees."

Contact the Girl Scouts of the USA council office that serves your area (or the Girl Guides office for your country) and see if there is a Girl Scout day camp or single event outdoors in your area that you could help with as a volunteer. If you are under 18 and a girl, to volunteer will require you to become a Girl Scout (which is a wonderful thing to be!). If you are 18 or over, you do NOT have to be female to volunteer with the Girl Scouts. You need to express interest in volunteering at least two months in advance for many events. Day camps need people to lead hikes, lead craft-making (the crafts are usually already defined, but your recommendations would also be welcomed), lead singing, cook, make posters for the event (with song lyrics, directing girls to craft tables, telling them how to clean up after the event, etc.) and staff the registration table at the start of the event, among many other activities.

Of course, use the many, many web sites that can show you local volunteering opportunities to find additional outdoor volunteering ideas, or volunteering in support of the environment.

Volunteering With and For Animals

If you like animals, call your local animal shelters, animal/wildlife rescue organizations, and, if you live near such, a nonprofit zoo - or view the web sites for these organizations and read about how they involve volunteers. You may have to volunteer for several weeks in an administrative role to prove yourself, and complete training, before you are allowed to do anything with or near animals, like walk dogs or hold kittens, and most shelters won't let you interact with animals unless you are 18, though a few do allow volunteers who are 16 or over to interact with animals. See more activities in support at animals later on this page, under "home-based volunteering."

Of course, use the many, many web sites that can show you local volunteering opportunities to find additional volunteering opportunities with animals.

Residential Volunteering

For citizens of the USA and legal permanent resident aliens here: AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) is a full-time, team-based residential program for men and women age 18-24. AmeriCorps NCCC members receive a living allowance of approximately $4,000 for the 10 months of service (about $200 every two weeks before taxes), housing, meals, limited medical benefits, up to $400 a month for childcare and an education award upon successful completion of the program. Members are assigned to one of five campuses, located in Denver, Colorado; Sacramento, California; Perry Point, Maryland; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Vinton, Iowa. The mission of AmeriCorps NCCC is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based national and community service. In partnership with non-profits (secular and faith-based), local municipalities, state governments, federal government, national or state parks, Indian Tribes and schools, NCCC members complete service projects throughout the region they are assigned, from conservation projects to disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery activities (FEMA Corps members). Members are trained in CPR, first aid, public safety, and other skills before beginning their first service project.   

For citizens of the USA and legal permanent resident aliens here: Young people between 17 and 24 years old can serve a year in the CityYear program, as tutors, mentors and role models, helping children stay in school. Most sites are in the USA, though there are some affiliates in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, England. corps members must also meet these eligibility requirements. To apply, you must be a USA citizen or legal permanent resident alien, and have a high school or diploma or GED, or be willing to earn a GED. A college degree or some college are great as well. You must be able to dedicate 10 months to full-time service and agree to a background or security check. Applicants may have served no more than three terms in another AmeriCorps, NCCC or VISTA program. Previous experiences with service, tutoring, mentoring and leadership help strengthen candidacy.

You can go on these volunteer "vacations", but note that some require you to pay your own transportation, accommodation and food costs, plus a service fee (or the service fee includes those costs):

  • The American Hiking Society sponsors several excellent volunteer excursions every year, constructing or rebuilding footpaths, cabins and shelters in some of the USA's most beautiful parks and historic sites.

  • Sierra Club volunteer vacations help to state and federal land agencies. Service trips range from helping with research projects at whale calving grounds in Maui to assisting with archaeological site restoration in New Mexico.

  • Glacier National Park has internship and fellowship opportunities where volunteers receive a small stipend in return for their service. They also have Citizen Science program, but volunteers do not receive any stipend and are responsible for all their own expenses.

  • Student Conservation Association provides college and high school-aged members with hands-on conservation service opportunities, "from tracking grizzlies through the Tetons to restoring desert ecosystems and teaching environmental education at Washington, D.C.'s Urban Tree House."

  • Break Away is a nonprofit that promotes alternative Spring break and Summer break trips. Unfortunately, its database can be accessed only by university chapter members.

Online Volunteering

Most volunteering that you can do from your home or a school computer requires a certain degree of expertise, such as designing flyers, maintaining a web site, translating text, editing video, designing a database, writing press releases or funding proposals, managing online social networking activities, etc. Even if you have the expertise necessary to volunteer online, you will still probably have to go onsite to the organization you want to help, to introduce yourself, to go through their orientation, to meet staff, and maybe even to convince them to allow you to volunteer online (virtual volunteering). List of places to volunteer online and where to find online volunteering opportunities.

 
Home-Based Volunteering

Below are home-based volunteering tasks you can do that don't involve using the Internet or computers to deliver your services (though you may need to use the Internet to sign up to help). These are assignments for people who sew, knit, or crochet, and for those who want to make greeting cards for ill children or to USA military personnel

  • Look into Adopt a Soldier programs that allow you and your kids to send letters and items to soldiers. Plenty of info on the Internet. An example: Adopt a Soldier, where volunteers send letters and items to soldiers.

  • If you sew, you can create items for these charities
      Afghans for Afghans

      Mother Bear Project, provides crocheted and knit bears to children with HIV/AIDS

      Binky Patrol is an all volunteer, national, non-profit organization making and distributing homemade blankets to children born HIV+, drug-addicted, infected with AIDS or other chronic & terminal illnesses, those who are abused, in foster care or experiencing trauma of any kind. A binky is a homemade blanket that can be sewn, knitted, crocheted or quilted. the blankets range in size from three feet square up to twin bed size.

      Project Linus, making blankets and crafts for sick children

      Quilts of Valor (QOVs), making quilts for soldiers.

      Shawl Ministry (Christian volunteering)

  • Call your local humane societies, ASPCA chapters and animal shelters, and ask if you could:

    • Make appropriate food treats for dogs and cats and drop them off at the shelter. You can find a variety of recipes to make treats for dogs and cats online.

    • Make appropriate bedding for dogs and cats and drop them off at the shelter. You could use scrap materials gathered from your own home and that of neighbors. There are lots of suggestions for making your own dog and cat beds online.

    • Organize a dog and cat food and supply drive for the shelter. If there is a pet food pantry for low-income people, gather food for the pantry (note that this cannot be leftover, opened-bags of food; these have to be unopened packages of pet food).

    • Foster a dog or cat. That means you care for the dog or cat in your own home until it is adopted by someone else. You do this through your local humane society, ASPCA, animal shelter, or dog or cat rescue organization. It is a real commitment; if you take in a dog or cat, there is no where else for that animal to go until it is adopted, so don't take on a foster animal unless you can make the commitment needed!

     
    The Value of Your Service

    As you volunteer, you are:

    • Building references and contacts for future employment or for university applications
    • Gaining experience that looks great on a résumé
    • Gaining skills you can apply in paid work or in university studies
    • Helping an organization achieve its goals
    • Gaining leadership skills (if you design or head-up a project yourself)

 

 
 
 
 
Suggested books:

 
Volunteering: The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened to Me)

 
The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering: Doing Good Together

 
Doing Good Together: 101 Easy, Meaningful Service Projects for Families, Schools, and Communities

 
Engage Every Parent!: Encouraging Families to Sign On, Show Up, and Make a Difference

 
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others

 
Children as Volunteers: Preparing for Community Service


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