Engaging Teens in Community Service: An Essential Guide to Growing Up
Tips and pointers to boost teen community service participation
By Michele Pitman, Founder & CEO, intelliVOL
Before one particularly memorable Christmas season, my family lived in a busy bubble. We focused on work, school, soccer practice, (and repeat) until one year my father had a special request — to help a family in need. After his holiday suggestion, I realized I didn't know a single family needing assistance, which had to change. So my family and I decided to donate 100 hours of additional local community service. Later on, we were elated to sit and share our civic efforts and experiences with my father.
After reflection, our time giving back revealed a foundational need. If someone wanted to find philanthropic opportunities, record their service hours, or report their results, there wasn't a centralized platform to streamline the process. So, after giving my dad his Christmas gift, facilitating volunteerism became a calling, and the idea for my company, x2VOL, began.
Soon, colleagues became co-founders, and I worked alongside parents, principals, school counselors, and students to set a solution in place. As a result, my company launched in the education industry in 2009, and today, I pride myself working side-by-side with schools for over 15 years. Currently, schools have approved over 50 million student service hours through x2VOL. In addition, working with schools has given me significant insight into what teens need to get involved in civic service.
Community service counts
If you have a child applying for college admissions or scholarship applications, community service can be a crucial differentiator between applicants. Volunteering can make all the difference when it comes to final decisions.
Furthermore, teens are at a critical age in cognitive and emotional development during high school and participation in community service allows them to build on their developing neurological skills, like exercising elemental decision making and developing empathy. Community service can also propel teen personal growth by teaching gratitude, tolerance, and sacrifice. The volunteer work also strengthens the abilities needed for the workforce, preparing teens to tackle essential professional skills like critical thinking and collaboration.
While boosting their sense of belonging and comradery, community service can shape social skills by offering compelling experiences where teens explore their interests and discover innate talents. Giving teens the option to choose the setting and structure of their civic service means they are being trusted to be responsible and pick the right volunteer partnership.
Read on to learn a few tips to make your teens’ community service requirements a reality.
Set the stage for community service success.
Through volunteering, teens explore their passions, find purpose, and where they fit in the world. When service activities align to and accommodate adolescent curiosities and talents, enthusiasm for philanthropy increases, incentivizing teens to give of their time.
Service is a requirement for graduation in several states. Whether your teen is seeking to fill that graduation requirement or whether they are engaged simply for personal reasons, look to your school for resources and contacts at local volunteer organizations. Schools may also host annual service events or activities within the community like fall clean-ups or holiday toy drives.
Trust your child to choose service projects they like.
With the freedom to determine which cause they’d like to support and which organization they’d like to serve, teens will follow their hearts and are more apt to willingly lend a helping hand and stick with it. In addition to selecting where to volunteer, when teens have the independence to set their own service hours, they take ownership which could lead to far better engagement and commitment to the cause.
Make sure your teen writes down what they did and reflects on their experience. Many schools still use paper forms to track service. If your school does not have a system like x2VOL for tracking time, it’s up to the student to monitor and log their time. Don’t let this slip. It is easy to forget the details even a day later. Furthermore, many college and scholarship applications require rigorous confirmation of service hours, so be sure your teen documents their hours electronically and validates their community service time by obtaining signatures from applicable supervisors. Letters of recommendation from their site superiors may also serve as volunteer proof, but the number of hours worked, and the type of tasks completed should be present within the letter.
Teens should also reflect on their volunteer time to make their service experience more meaningful. Writing observations about their encounters can be a helpful reference and assist with future application essays. Students should summarize what they did and what they learned within their reflections. Encourage them to expound by writing more details about what the volunteer work taught them about social issues at large, how the charitable act made them feel, and how they might apply what they learned to everyday life.
Encourage your child by acknowledging their efforts.
Service work is a reward in and of itself, but sincere, personalized support, such as celebrating volunteer hour milestones, can also go a long way. Teens will appreciate the affirmation of their good deeds. When youth contribute to their community, commending them for their hard work can be crucial to inspiring enthusiasm for community service into adulthood.
Community service is an opportunity for personal growth.
When adolescents choose their volunteer projects and align their interests with the inclination to serve, many find themselves inspired by the collective impact they've made. For example, a teen who enjoys working for Habitat for Humanity might attend a technical school to enter the carpentry trade, or may go to college to become an architect — both paths sparked by personal service experiences.
Learn More: What is Social-Emotional Learning?
Moreover, after reflecting on their volunteer work, teens who donate their time giving back tend to acknowledge the process as a positive practice — and those who participate typically credit community service for furthering their sense of self and future purpose. Overall, community service work has the power to transform the adolescent perspective and prepare teens with soft and hard skills for the rest of their lives, equipping young adults with the pride of knowing they have made a difference in somebody else’s life.