Bright Idea: Four Ways to Engage At-Risk Youth in Community Service

Young people giving the positive thumbs up gesture.

If you’ve ever cleaned up a park or planned a fundraiser with a group of young people, you know volunteering makes them feel good and helps them develop leadership skills. They learn how to share ideas with a group, motivate others to succeed and see a project through to the end. These skills, and the confidence that comes with them, can translate to the classroom and the workplace. 

In fact, there’s quite a bit of research exploring the benefits young people get when they do community service. And giving back may be particularly beneficial for youth from underserved communities.

“There’s nothing more empowering for youth coming from an at-risk background than to hear that someone needs their help,” says David Battey, president and founder of Youth Volunteer Corps in Kansas, MO. “Those are powerful words to say to anyone, but they’re even more meaningful for teens who feel they’re usually the ones in need.”

Connecting Youth to Community Service Opportunities

Unfortunately, Battey says, young people with the most to gain from community service often don’t know about ways to get involved. Plus, many of the opportunities available to teens lack the guidance and structure needed to make them rewarding, says Battey, whose organization works with nonprofits across the country to create high-quality service projects for teens—including those not traditionally asked to serve.

We asked Battey and Karen Daniel, vice president of engagement at Youth Service America, which sponsors Global Youth Service Day each April, to offer advice on engaging young people from at-risk backgrounds in community service. Here’s what they said:

  1. Ask youth the right questions. Asking “do you want to volunteer” can get kids motivated, but it isn’t always enough. Make sure to include follow-up questions, Daniel says, like “what would you do in a perfect day” to see what types of activities they enjoy most. Youth Service America encourages young people to become leaders by creating and administering their own service projects that “fire them up.” A young person who loves to dance might create a free dance program for low-income students, for example, while an aspiring musician might organize a concert to raise money for charity.
  2. Vet community service programs. Help young people learn about ongoing service projects in your community such as park beautification projects and mentorship programs—and the organizations running them. You want to gauge whether the experience will be meaningful for the young person. Look for programs that are structured and include adult guidance. Will young people have a designated project leader they can seek out if they have questions? Will they be left alone in a room to complete their work, or will they have opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm with others? For at-risk youth in particular, Battey says, working in a team environment adds a level of accountability that might not exist if they were to volunteer alone. A teammate may text  someone who doesn’t show up on time, for example, or speak up if they think someone is acting disrespectfully.
  3. Think through logistics. Once teens have chosen a project to join or begun to design their own project, help them consider what they might need to volunteer and how you can support those needs. Will they need help getting to their service project, for example? Does the task require special clothes or supplies? Family and youth workers can also help young people think through the skills they might need to succeed in a certain role, and the homework they can do to prepare. YSA’s “Youth Changing the World: A Service Project Toolkit” can walk them through all the right steps.
  4. Be a sounding board. Give young volunteers opportunities to talk through challenges that come up and to decide whether it makes sense to overcome them or move on.  This can involve regular meetings, or simply being available if a young person wants to talk.

A last word: Don’t be surprised or disappointed, Daniel says, if teens change their minds about what they want to do. Instead, offer support and walk them through the pros and cons of starting a new project.

“Right now, a young person might be really excited about recycling and in six weeks, they’re really interested in literacy,” she says. “That’s just part of the [discovery] process.”

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