Community & Current Events

I want to make a difference

By: Susan Pedwell

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

I want to make a difference

By: Susan Pedwell

Question: Which age group is most likely to volunteer? Hint: It's not the baby boomers, and it's not seniors. Answer: It's young people. The volunteer rate among Canadians aged 15 to 24 nearly doubled between 1987 and 1997. Now more than one-third of young people volunteer, making them the ones who are most likely to lend a helping hand. But behind those young volunteers are lots of supportive parents offering encouragement, advice and their chauffeuring services. Here is a parent's guide to helping a young person volunteer.

Why young people volunteer
It's a truism that youth are idealistic, so it makes sense that teen volunteers are motivated by a belief in a cause and by a desire to help others. "Youth want to make a lasting, meaningful contribution to our community and to our country," says Leslie Evans, executive director of the Youth Volunteer Corps of Canada in Calgary, which had a record-breaking 1,637 teen volunteers last year. "Youth want to be seen as valuable service providers and are willing to take on responsibility and be leaders," he says. "As volunteers, most of our youth don't want to stuff envelopes."

Charities benefit from the energy and optimism of youth, and young people need the opportunities that volunteer work provides. For youth who are eager to try out their leadership skills, volunteering can offer the chance to be president of a tree-planting campaign or to manage a clothing drive. Other youth crave the insight into social issues and community challenges that can come from volunteering on the front lines.

Sure, some youth volunteer out of self-interest. They want to increase their chances of landing a job or being accepted into a coveted university program – and it works. As part of the National Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP), Statistics Canada interviewed 2,389 Canadians aged 15 to 24. What they discovered was that almost one in four youth volunteers found their volunteer experience to be a stepping-stone to a paying job. When a letter of reference from the executive director of a charity is paper-clipped to a teen's résumé, well, who isn't impressed?
Most youth want to volunteer in one of four areas: helping children, seniors, animals or the environment, says Kimberly Greening, youth coordinator of Youth Mobilizing Youth in St. John's, Nfld. And, as part of their volunteer work, they also want to socialize with people their own age. "Youth always volunteer with their friends," says Greening. "Adults just want to get the job done, but youth also want to have fun."

Getting started
In spite of young people's enthusiasm for volunteering, some still find it difficult to take the first step. The NSGVP study revealed just how big a step it is for youth to start volunteering. It found that 44 per cent of youth, especially high school kids, began volunteering because someone asked them to. Those who didn't volunteer didn't because no one asked them to. It's not until youth are between 20 and 24 that most have the confidence to approach an organization on their own. As a parent, you can look for opportunities for your child to be asked, or you can arrange to volunteer as a family. Some volunteer centres provide family volunteer programs. For instance, if your family fosters kittens through an animal shelter until they're old enough to be adopted, your teen can take on a few late-night bottle feedings.

If you think your teen might be interested in volunteering, steer her toward her school's guidance department; some counsellors keep lists of volunteer opportunities. Your local volunteer centre, which acts as a clearinghouse for such opportunities, is also worth checking out, although most jobs will be for those aged 16 – if not 18 – and older.

"Hi, my name Is Jonathan…"
The mere thought of making cold calls to volunteer their talents can make many kids freeze. However, "Don't call and make the appointment for them," instructs Evans. "Role-play the call. Your children are going to have to make a lot of difficult phone calls in their lives; preparing for this call will give them a skill they can use in the future."

Once an interview is booked, you can help your child prepare for the interview. "The worst thing that can happen to a young person is rejection," says Evans. "Try to avoid rejection by evaluating the position and going over the kinds of questions that will be asked."

During the interview she may be asked to fill in an application form and supply at least two references. The names and numbers of a teacher, neighbour, employer and/or coach are appropriate. If your teen is over 18, the interviewer may also ask permission to run a police-records check on her name. That may seem like a little much, but screening helps protect the vulnerable people that the organization serves. The process also ensures that the volunteer is a good match for the position.

You probably have a lot of questions of your own about your child's new undertaking. Parents have the right to know that their child will be safe and not in over her head. Expect a written job description that outlines the obligations of both the organization and the volunteer. If you still have questions, call the organization yourself. Ensure that the agency will orient and train your teen and that there is ongoing supervision. Look for a volunteer organization's willingness to communicate with parents and an openness to input and suggestions. If your teen is under 18, she'll need your permission to volunteer.

When your child lands the volunteer position, go ahead and celebrate. "A lot of kids are so excited when they're accepted," says Greening. "It's such a big deal to them. The harder it is to volunteer, the more committed they are."

The no. 1 problem
Time is already tight for youth. They have homework. They need their sleep. And if your teen has a part-time job, you might feel that volunteer work is out of the question. But the NSGVP study found that youth who have part-time jobs are the most likely to volunteer.

The job description should define the time commitment required – and, likely, it's realistic. But is your teen? Sometimes kids get so excited that they can take on too much. If you anticipate a time crunch, sit down with your child and study her schedule. Then let her decide whether the commitment is possible.

What if your daughter decides to give up her volunteer commitment, leaving the seniors who have come to rely on her high and dry? If time is the culprit, offer to help. Maybe she could gain a little time if you drove her to the hospital, instead of her taking the bus. Having dinner earlier or later may make her feel less rushed.

Or perhaps your teen is finding the volunteer experience difficult. If your child is shy and is being asked to lead a group, suggest a different volunteer experience. Chances are, she'll be eager to volunteer again. What's important is that she has already made that first step: she has decided that she has something to offer. Now there's only fine-tuning left.

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Community & Current Events

I want to make a difference