Q&A: For Homeless Youth, Volunteering Builds More than Resumes

Young person doing carpentry

For runaway and homeless youth, finding a job can be a tedious process. Volunteering not only gives youth valuable experience to add to their resumes, but it also boosts well-being by building confidence and connectedness, says Michelle Kuhar, community relations and public relations liaison at Covenant House Michigan.

The Detroit-based organization provides housing and services to runaway and homeless youth, with an emphasis on supporting their independence. Youth receiving services can volunteer in the community in a number of ways, such as helping to deliver meals or speaking at “sleep out” events designed to educate the public on what it’s like to be homeless for a night.

We spoke to Kuhar to learn how volunteering can impact well-being among runaway and homeless youth, and what other agencies should know about connecting them to community service.

NCFY: How do youth in your programs react to volunteering, especially as they try to meet their own basic needs?

Kuhar: One young person I talked to was so glad to be using his time in this way. He had been frustrated with applying for jobs at that time and said he was happy to be doing something productive. Another young person was excited to say, “I’m volunteering today! I have a purpose today rather than just doing something that I need to do,” like applying for a social security card, for example. At Covenant House, we have classes and programs going on here during the day where youth are investing in themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily give them the same sense of satisfaction as when they are giving back.

Around Christmas time, youth made Christmas cards for the veterans at Piquette Square [for Veterans], a local housing organization. We were able to catch one of the vets on the way out and the kids started talking to him right away, asking about his military experience. He really engaged them, too, saying, “I’m so happy to be here and have a place to live,” and he asked them, “Are you happy?” They were able to relate to each other in the shared experience of being displaced and unwanted, yet being able to find happiness in their situation. The youth saw that they can impact someone else, but also receive something positive in their own experiences.

[Discover four ways to connect youth to community service.]

NCFY: What impact does community service have on youth in the long-term?

Kuhar: One of my responsibilities is to go out and talk to businesses about what Covenant House does. I can bring a volunteer youth speaker with me to tell their stories and experiences of homelessness, always coaching them through, and only selecting those who are willing to speak publicly. At one of these events, one young person was nervous because it was his first time doing anything like this, so we did a Q&A format where I asked him questions. The second time we went out, he felt more comfortable and able to tell his story without my queuing him. He became more engaged, looking up at people while he spoke.  I’ve seen many youth becoming more comfortable with themselves and what they’ve gone through. Being asked to be a speaker, knowing someone is willing to put their trust in you to be in a position of authority, and having the courage to stand up there in front of a large audience to talk about oneself is a real confidence builder.

[Learn how to take a trauma-informed approach to preparing youth for public speaking.]

NCFY: What would you tell other agencies about engaging homeless youth in community service?

Kuhar: [Volunteer experiences] can provide a sense of having more dignity and self-worth than youth realize because walking into healthy environments where you are appreciated helps break down mental barriers of negative self-image. Instead of seeing themselves as victims, or always as the recipient of help and needing help, they have an opportunity to be the change-maker, to be the person who is giving instead of getting. That translates into their having a sense of empowerment that can lead to being more comfortable initiating change in their own lives.

We [at Covenant House Michigan] really look at the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. It’s not just about being a homeless shelter, a place to lay one’s head. It’s about how we empower youth to become more whole and find a sense of purpose and success in their lives. [Other programs] can offer [youth] opportunities to become more well-rounded and give them a greater basis to work from as they go forward in life.

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