Over the summer, students have a lot more time on their hands to volunteer, and there are many reasons they choose to serve. Of course, the first and foremost reason people volunteer in their communities is to give back.

“In high school, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity with individuals from my martial arts studio. We traveled to Greensboro, AL to build a new community center. It was a real eye-opening experience, and ultimately a rewarding one. To see another part of the country with a high poverty rate made me feel grateful for what I have and the education I received. It’s easy to take what we have for granted…my experience in giving back to a less-fortunate community made me realize that true joy can come from being of service, as well as being in gratitude,” said Jason Natzke, Video Producer at Peterson’s.

These experiences can be an integral part of a high schooler’s development, and as attested by Natzke, help youth see the bigger picture of their impact, as well as recognize their own privilege. 

“I think being 17 at the time of the trip was very important in my growth. The trip to Alabama was scheduled for the same weekend at my junior prom and, at first, I was resistant. But the volunteer experience in Greensboro was far more rewarding and memorable than any experience I could’ve had at prom,” said Natzke.

Intersect Volunteer Work with Personal Interests

There are many ways to get involved in your community, which leaves students with plenty of avenues in which to pursue their personal interests while volunteering. Some students may be particularly passionate about food security, and may choose to volunteer at the local food bank or food service facility for underserved community members. Other students may love animals, making a local animal shelter or SPCA great community service options. No matter where you choose to volunteer, finding a cause you are passionate about will make the experience all the more rewarding.

Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, or VOC, is an organization that works to maintain and preserve the public lands of Colorado. Kellie Flowers, Marketing and Communications Manager at VOC, explained that volunteers do everything from building and maintaining trails, to removing invasive species and planting trees, to doing fire and flood restoration. Flowers said that many of their volunteers are high school students, and the Cairn Youth Program works specifically to engage high schoolers.

“Each year we take 30 to 35 high school students and essentially engage them in monthly outdoor projects throughout the school year. So that’s a really nice way for teenagers to get involved in our work beyond that typical project season and a lot of them have continuous engagement throughout the school year with the same group of kids, which is also just really nice for building relationships,” said Flowers.

The program not only provides a unique volunteer opportunity for students, but can help students find a way to integrate their interest in the outdoors into their future academic and career paths.

“We see a lot of teenagers really getting involved really wanting to take on a leadership role and it’s a great time for teenagers to get involved because it’s really when you start to look at future career paths, college and education paths. It’s a way to open their eyes to this world of outdoor stewardship and how they might want to be involved with that in the future,” said Flowers.

Of course, teenagers who are already interested in the outdoors often enjoy the opportunity to get outside, possibly with friends, while giving back to the community and public lands they already utilize. The experience is unique to these students as they are able to see the work that goes into sustaining the trails, parks, and campsites they may have previously utilized.

“We see volunteers of all ages, all backgrounds, but really as diverse as they are in terms of where they’re coming from, they all have this love for the outdoors in common,” said Flowers.

Volunteer Trips are an Immersive Experience

Volunteer trips are a popular way to immerse students in a volunteer experience. Katarina Lincoln, Staff Accountant at Peterson’s, spent part of her summer after high school on a mission trip in Nicaragua. 

“Nothing else has done more to grow and solidify my faith, my perspective on the world, and my desire to always be making a difference for other people. It changed my world-view and I truly came back from the country a different person,” said Lincoln.

Whether you consistently volunteer at an organization or go on a volunteer trip, the experience will often learn traits like bravery and compassion, and many students find that the experience helps them “come out of their shell”.

“It’s huge to give back because you never know how much it will actually affect yourself. You never know what types of situations you’ll come across when you put yourself out there to volunteer, and I think that creates the biggest opportunity for growth,” said Lincoln.

Use Service Hours Requirements to Your Benefit

Many high schools and honors programs recognize the positive effect volunteering has on both students and the community, and require students to complete a minimum amount of volunteer hours as part of graduation requirements of group membership requirements. This encourages students to regularly engage in community service. 

Molly Speckman, Volunteer Coordinator at Northern Illinois Food Bank, said that many students reach out to her to get involved with the food bank, in part due to this uptick in service requirements. Speckman shared that high school students tend to have certain strengths such as energy and flexibility that contribute positively to the organization.

“High school volunteers are really open to the types of projects that you give them, whether it’s a produce project, a relabeling project, or working in our bulk repack room. They’re very flexible in what they can do, as long as you’re explaining the meaning and the intent of the project,” said Speckman.

When students are able to make the connection between the project they’re working on and the impact it will have, the process is both motivation and educational.

“As much as we can, we try to focus the opportunity as more of a transformative learning experience, which is a really helpful way to tie in the full value of volunteering. It’s not just that you’re packing a box of potatoes, it’s that you’re packing a box of potatoes that’s going to be going to a food pantry, and it will be going on somebody’s table within a couple of days. So trying to paint that bigger picture and where they fit into that is a really important thing for teeanagers today,” said Speckman.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank also provides a teenager-specific program called the VolunTeen Program. The program works to train students to be leaders at volunteer shifts by first explaining the mission of the food bank and showing the students how to operate the production.

“Typically by the second or the third week, the teens are taking charge and they’re delivering introduction, answering questions throughout the shift, delivering the closing remarks, things of that nature,” said Speckman.

The program also hosts professional development workshops that work with students on their interviewing and resume skills as well as their public speaking skills. Students are asked to deliver orientations to volunteer groups, which may be comprised of 25 to 150 people.

“They’re able to give back to us, we can really use their help in leading those groups because we have a lot of volunteers coming in, but it also gives them the chance to actually put those leadership skills into practice which is a really cool thing to watch,” said Speckman.

As for things to keep in mind when you start volunteering, Speckman emphasized the importance of autonomy as a means to build professional skills. 

“We try to treat our volunteers whether they’re teenagers or adults with as much autonomy as possible, so it really looks good for teenage volunteers when they’re reaching out on their own rather than their parents doing it for them. Showing that initiative and self starting always is a really big positive for them,” said Speckman.

This type of communication is good practice for future jobs and careers, as students have to get used to professional email and phone communication as well as in-person communication. Students may also eventually want to utilize their volunteer supervisors as references. So, keep in mind that longevity and consistency at an organization will help these supervisors get to know you and your work ethic so your supervisors may serve as a better references or write more specific letters of recommendation.

“If you have a longer history with us, even if its spaced out to once a month over six months rather than six shifts crammed within one week, we’re more likely to remember you and have more things that we can talk about when we’re trying to provide that reference for you,” said Speckman.

Leverage Scholarships

For college-bound students, another major benefit of volunteering is that volunteering experience, especially prolonged experience, is a shining achievement on your college applications. You may also be eligible to receive scholarships based on your contributions to the community. 

Since colleges value longevity in volunteer experience–and all extracurricular activities for that matter–picking an organization that you enjoy volunteering with and are passionate about will be much more beneficial than, say, trying to cram your high school volunteering requirements into a few days. Or, if the opportunity is available to you logistically and financially, you can repeatedly go on a volunteer trip each year. This isn’t to say that you are stuck with whatever organization you pick your freshman year, but showing dedication to a cause will go a long way.

Volunteering is positively impactful both on the community and the volunteers themselves, and getting involved comes with its fair share of tangible and intangible benefits. If you aren’t sure where you want to start volunteering, talk to your high school guidance counselor, who will help you sort through your interests as they relate to local organizations. Whether you live in an urban or rural community, there are many ways you can give back in a meaningful way.

See also: Our summer to-do lists for each high school grade

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