Many teens consider community service a bore, a chore to complete in order to graduate or include on a college application. I see it as much more - it's a way to help yourself and others. Each year I rack up 400 hours of community service. I don't do it to earn rewards or recognition, but because I enjoy it and helping others. If things were up to me, there would be a day of service each semester. The student body would be divided into groups and led by teachers, parents and students. Just imagine the work that could be completed in seven hours with 1,500 sets of hands - parks could be cleaned, houses repaired, food pantries organized, children tutored, animals cared for, and so much more.
I believe that one of the keys to community service is to find something you like, because then it's not a job you have to do, it's an event you get to help with.
There are a few simple steps to finding an opportunity:
1. Think of something you like to do, whether it's working on computers, fixing cars or gardening.
2. Evaluate your skill level and needs: is it something you can do fairly well? Is there an age restriction? How often can you serve?
3. Find some group or organization who needs you. If you enjoy reading, look for a literacy group or a school that needs tutors or people to read to children or visually impaired people. If you enjoy being with friends, look into activities that require groups where you can hang out while you work, like sorting canned goods for a soup kitchen.
4. If you have trouble finding something you love, contact a local volunteer agency which serves as a middle-man between those who want to help and those who need help.
One of the biggest issues my friends and I run into are age restrictions. A good number of agencies need people who are 18 and older. While this is understandable due to liability, and even the level of responsibility, I believe they should give teens a chance. I have taken many previously "adult" positions in my work with summer camps and other organizations; most of the time adults had just assumed that no teen would want the job.
I really got into volunteering in fifth grade when my school counselor saw how much I did and invited a few other students and me to go with her to represent our school at a community service convention. This was a big deal because the community service group that chose us had never selected an elementary school before.
There were lots of important people there, many meetings and events to attend, a booth to run, media, and many community service projects to complete - all in one day. No one would give the six of us the time of day; the TV cameramen told us to get out of their way and the college kids gave us strange looks before walking right by our booth. No one seemed to notice that you don't have to be tall or able to drive a car to help.
I always think of that day when finding people to help me, whether to help run a Bible school, a Girl Scout day camp, a meeting, or high-school event. I think everyone can help in some way. My little brothers know how involved I am helping others, and they are even following in my tracks, kind of. My youngest brother, who's six, helps me sort paperwork, and my 11-year-old brother helps me prepare activities and events for kids closer to his age. They both are actively working toward their silver presidential service awards for 50 hours a year.
I like to think that seeing me work for so many groups has set an example. This is why I think it is crucial for teens, and even elementary students, to volunteer. Like so many things, the younger you start the more it becomes part of your life.
I believe everyone has the potential to do great things. Important lessons come from volunteering - leadership, team work and cooperation are all skills I have learned.
So today, think about helping someone. Start simply - try smiling at people who look like they're having a hard day. If you see someone drop their books, or trip going up the stairs, be there to give a hand. You don't need to replant the rainforest all by yourself, but it's amazing what even little things can do.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.