When his infant son was diagnosed with leukemia and his health care insurance hadn't kicked in yet, Leland witnessed teenaged "impulses of compassion" first hand. The entire high school student body raised $227,000 through radio calls, canvassing door to door and car washes. This gesture prompted Leland to found the Sparrow Clubs, an organization that raises money in American high schools for local children in need.
Teenagers have "a tender underbelly," he writes in his 2003 book Disarming the Teenage Heart, which chronicles the passionate nature of teens.
Volunteering is for everyone
The passionate teen can be found in unlikely corners. Skater boy Robert Dyer, whose arms and neck are covered with colourful tattoos, started the foundation Skate4Cancer at age 15 after losing four loved ones – his mother, both grandmothers, and a close frient – to the disease. He skateboarded about 4,830 kilometres across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer. Not only was it a good way for him to deal with the negative energy, but Princess Margaret Hospital reported an increase of about $100,000 in donations as a result of his efforts. Though the trip was gruelling work, he did it again in the summer of 2008. "It felt great, like I had big meaning in my life," he said. "It felt like the people who passed away kind of lived on through this.”
Now 24, Dyer splits his time between working as a waiter and sharing his cancer awareness message with high school students. "Volunteer for something because you love it," Dyer advises teens. "People of any age can have an impact only limited by the size of their imagination.”
Students hard at work
Chris Poss, student council prime minister at a Brantford, Ontario high school, showed his imagination when he challenged each homeroom at his high school to match him in raising food for the local food bank. He vowed to shave his head if his fellow class mates raised more than him. Poss kept good on his promise – and the food bank got a busload full of food.
When a student at St. Theresa's Catholic High school in Richmond Hill was accidentally killed, the principal's appeal for help with the family’s funeral costs brought in $25,000 in just one day.
Cynthia Drebot often sees passion and imagination in action as a program director for MacDonald Youth Services in Winnipeg, an organization that finds community volunteer work for at-risk youth. "It's fascinating to watch youth step into a leadership role, develop patience and gentleness, as they run a program at the drop-in, visit with seniors, or work with dogs in the humane society," she says.
Drebot says valuable bridges can be built when youths receive praise for helping out and are seen in a new light by the community.
And yet, teenagers are often discouraged by their inability to effect change, but can quickly turn into volunteer powerhouses when their hearts are engaged, especially through personal relationships.
Gaby Silano, a 16-year-old Richmond Hill student, remembers feeling too young at 12 to make a difference, but a volunteer experience at summer camp a year later changed that. Assigned a "camper from hell" with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADD and signs of severe neglect, Silano at first kept her distance. When she discovered that the girl had learned sign language on her own in order to befriend a lonely deaf girl at school, Silano was inspired. "Here was a girl so neglected at home that pus oozed out of one ear from an untreated infection, and badly bullied at school, but she chose to reach out to someone else in need."
That girl became her "fire," Silano says. "If she could make a difference, so could I."
Free the Children
Habitat for Humanity
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