Passion for Service: Creating Habits of Youth Volunteerism

This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.

Written by Jacie Farris

We all make the traditional New Year’s resolutions, but who sticks with them? With the start of 2019 upon us, MCCOY would like to encourage everyone, especially young people, to commit to service and volunteerism this year – and follow through!

“It is incredibly important for youth to learn about service so that they can begin the valuable work to develop 21st-century skills such as collaboration, empathy and understanding, self-efficacy, critical thinking, understanding bias and stereotype, public speaking, communication and marketing, and project management,” said Derrin Slack, CEO of ProAct Indy, a local organization dedicated to serving at-risk youth by teaching them to “become the givers and creators of service in their schools and neighborhoods.”

According to Slack, ProAct Indy “deliberately utilizes social justice platforms as the driving force to help marginalized urban youth experience a social change orientation, work to redistribute power, and build authentic relationships with their community.” He says that that this approach helps youth “learn how to address social issues at their root causes while simultaneously developing character, building relationships, and learning valuable skills.”

The Joseph Maley Foundation, an organization that serves children of all abilities through a variety of adaptive programs, emphasizes service learning through curriculum and activities. The foundation involves junior board members in much of their work. According to Courtney Basso, events and communications manager, these young volunteers have learned communication and leadership skills, built relationships, and learned about nonprofit work. She believes that these experiences that can serve the teens well in college and future employment.

“Service is a two-way street,” said Basso. “Volunteers are providing invaluable hours to a community in need and, in return, are elevating their own happiness and sense of accomplishment. When young people are engaging in service from an early age, they learn to incorporate volunteerism into their daily lives.”

Many youth have provided one-time service for organizations, but it can be more difficult for young people to find long-term volunteer positions that fit their school and activity schedules. Slack recommends that youth first identify issues that excite them.

“Youth need to first find their personal passion before committing to long-term service. And that takes the average student time and experience. My suggestion would be to take three to four months to serve four or five organizations that address social issues that may be of interest to your child, then ask them which organization they could see themselves developing a relationship with to learn and develop skills, build relationships with its constituents, and feel more fulfilled in their service. Then, begin that relationship by volunteering once a month. This is a great way for youth to see a change in not only the organizations they are serving, but in themselves as well.”

Basso agreed, offering encouragement to young people by advising each individual to “engage in a variety of volunteer opportunities and then reflect on what you are truly passionate about. If you felt a deep sense of accomplishment or want to know more about a particular organization in need, that’s a great time to talk to their volunteer coordinator about becoming involved on a long-term basis. When youth are excited and engaged, a long-term commitment is sometimes easier, especially in an age of ‘mandatory service’ [that] we see in a lot of school systems.

Accountability is a major aspect of long-term service. Setting time-based benchmarks to track monthly involvement and connecting with an organization’s staff members, constituents, and volunteer force can increase one’s sense of personal responsibility. Furthermore, Basso recommends bringing a friend, saying “when you have a service buddy, you can help keep each other accountable and the organization is served twice!”

Adults can help youth build partnerships and set good examples when it comes to volunteering.

“The best way for parents and caregivers to teach service in age-appropriate ways is to model the expectation,” said Basso. “Children want to emulate the adults in their lives. When they see those adults engaging in service, especially in opportunities where young volunteers can participate, it is more likely they will want to continue that activity throughout their lives.”

“Schools and educators can promote service by making it part of the consistent rigor of their curriculum,” said Slack. “In my experience, this is done more effectively if schools and educators intentionally partner with community agencies that work to connect their students to the community. It is sometimes intimidating for some educators to engage their students in the community because it is oftentimes difficult to find opportunities…atop of a rigorous teaching schedule; however, by partnering with outside organizations to do the work on a school or educator’s behalf, students will have more fulfilling interactions with their community and learn to value service in their lives because it will end up being more fun and engaging.”

Without an appreciation for volunteerism, young people can miss out on vital growing opportunities.

“When young people aren’t exposed to the joy of service, it creates an unfortunate cycle,” said Basso. “Communities in need suffer from want of volunteers and those not volunteering run the risk of developing a lack of empathy. Seeing the impact of their service firsthand helps young people develop empathy and compassion. When they aren’t serving, it becomes all too easy to see community issues as someone else’s ‘problem.’”

On the other hand, the results of building service-minded habits can be life-changing in a positive way.

“One of my favorite moments in this work is seeing youth have that ‘lightbulb moment’” said Slack, “where you can see their hearts change from apathy about service to internalizing their civic duty and passion for service.”

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