Primary Sources: Community Service Boosts Young People’s Development—If It’s Done Right

A FoodCorps AmeriCorps member shows children how to plant seedlings to grow food in a garden. (Photo courtesy FoodCorps)

"State of the Field: Youth Community Service in the USA" (abstract). Edward Metz. Chapter 33 of “Handbook of Child Well-Being,” pp. 977-997 (2014).

What it’s about: Metz provides a snapshot of what youth community service looks like in the United States. To do that, he reviewed a wide body of literature as well as surveys of community service programs. He calls community service a prosocial activity that promotes social wellness. It provides direct or indirect benefit to the recipient, and the person who performs the activity expects no reward. Metz says young people may volunteer informally, for example by helping a sick neighbor every week. Or they may take part in formal volunteerism through a local nonprofit or afterschool program.

Why read it: Youth development theorists have long suggested that getting involved in community service can promote Positive Youth Development. Opportunities to lead and work in teams, they say, empower young people to develop skills and competencies particularly valuable for disconnected youth. Metz attempts to pinpoint the gap between what researchers and practitioners know to be the key elements of effective service and how programs are actually carried out.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Metz says that when youth give back by doing community service, they become more aware of how they can fit into the world in constructive, rewarding ways. Overall, youth who serve their communities are:

  • More likely to have a strong work ethic when they reach adulthood.
  • Less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs and have unprotected sex.
  • More likely to do well at school and at work and have healthy psychological well-being.
  • More likely to volunteer and vote.

But not all service experiences are worthwhile for youth. Picking up trash or filing papers will mean less to a young person than face-to-face interactions with others. It's not enough to find meaningful tasks for youth to do, though. Metz writes that when youth volunteers take on challenging roles, such as answering phones at a crisis clinic, adults need to train, mentor and support them so they can be successful.

Based on the research he looked at, Metz recommends some ways staff can make service meaningful and relevant for young people:

  • Work on an issue that relates to something young people are studying in school or facing in their lives.
  • Reflect through writing, discussion and analysis. “Young people who discuss their volunteer experiences are twice as likely to continue [PDF, 430KB], compared to volunteers who do not discuss their experience,” Metz writes.
  • Celebrate what was accomplished.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on community service in our digital library. The National Youth Leadership Council’s Lift website has free tools and resources for making service-learning meaningful and effective.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

Photo courtesy FoodCorps.

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