The following article is re-published from the June 2017 issue of emPower Monthly, the newsletter of the Family Empowerment Network, founded by Dr. Kathy Masarie.  Kathy is a doctor, life coach, lecturer, Compassionate Communication teacher, and a friend of Sunstone. We highly recommend you subscribe to emPower Monthly. The articles are definitely worth reading, like this one:

The Virtues of Volunteering

This month, I turn over this column to Julia Salmon, for the words of wisdom on youth volunteering that she shared in our Raising Our Daughters and Raising Our Sons books. Thank you, Julia!


The summer looms before us, not exactly those lazy, hazy days of our own youth, because it’s our children we’re talking about. In an effort to avoid taxiing to the mall or movies and patrolling TV, we flip through camp catalogues and class schedules, looking for just the right activity to fill their time. But the price tags are so high, the rewards hazy, the choices confusing. What to do? Consider volunteering!

Youth gain basic skills, a sense of community, and a sense of power through volunteering. Volunteering gives natural, tangible benefits to your son or daughter, and it doesn’t cost a cent. Volunteering also can help instill in your child certain personal assets necessary for growing up healthy, caring, and competent.

Over fifty years of research conducted by the Search Institute has identified 40 Developmental Assets that kids need to succeed, and the more Developmental Assets someone has, the less likely she or he will get involved in dangerous or self-destructive activities. Unfortunately, on average, most youth have only eighteen of the 40 Assets, leaving them vulnerable to many negative influences. Volunteer service is a rich resource for counteracting some of those negative influences. In fact, getting involved in the community as a volunteer provides several important Developmental Assets including:

  • Learning that the community values them
  • Developing relationships with adults
  • Developing a sense of purpose
  • Allowing them to be valuable resources
  • Service to others one or more hours per week
  • Bringing adult role models into their lives
  • Positive peer influence; having friends who set good examples
  • Developing a sense of caring, empathy, and sensitivity

Notice how many of the above Assets involve relationships. Interestingly, the Search Institute’s research shows that young people are more likely to grow up successfully when they experience developmental relationships or close connections with people through which they discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them. The Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework identifies five elements—expressed in twenty specific actions—that make relationships powerful in young people’s lives. Volunteering can provide many of those actions.

In addition to all the other benefits, volunteering also gives kids an important role in the community. It allows them to realize some of their potential right now, rather than existing simply as “people in waiting.” One volunteer coordinator notes, “In my opinion, people under eighteen are one of the last really disenfranchised groups of folks. They are treated like ‘future beings.’” Volunteering gives kids a role in the here and now, empowers them to feel “I can effect change,” and fosters the sense of belonging for which they long.

With the benefits clear, what should you focus on in looking for a volunteer opportunity for your kids? Look for something that will be meaningful, rewarding, and teach them something. Maybe the skill they learn will be empathy or compassion. Or perhaps they will learn a life skill such as painting, construction, or knowing what it costs to raise a family. These are topics schools don’t usually include in their curriculum. No matter what your child does, though, your job as a parent is to emphasize the positive aspects of the volunteer work. For example, if your child stuffs envelopes, instead of saying, “Oh, that’s boring,” say, “That’s how organizations spread the word about their cause.”

Are you worried you won’t be able to convince your child to get involved? Children ages eleven or twelve don’t usually require a lot of motivation, but older teens are harder to motivate. Talk to them about how a volunteer experience can help them get a future job. For example, many young people gain experience for landscaping jobs by working in community gardens or volunteering with the park department. Real experience and letters of recommendation are invaluable when applying for paid work.

Volunteering with a friend also can be motivating. It might be necessary to get two friends together and “strong-arm” them into trying a particular activity. Because showing up to volunteer and not know anyone can be scary, going together helps to build initial confidence. After the first few days, your child and his/her friend will begin to realize the many benefits of their service and even probably have fun, which will keep them going back.

Once your child is volunteering, with your positive support, success is almost assured. Volunteering may be especially beneficial to those kids who don’t particularly shine in other aspects of their lives such as academics or sports. Anybody can be a successful volunteer. All they need is the motivation to do it and a good heart.

Julia Salmon, mother of Genna, Matt, and Jack, is a freelance writer/editor and lifelong volunteer.

Dr. Kathy adds:

You might be asking yourself, “Between two careers, three kids, homework, countless school and after-school activities, and the daily grind of laundry, cleaning, and cooking, how in the world could I find time to get my family to volunteer together?” We found a book that can help: The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering: Do Good, Have Fun, Make a Difference as a Family! offers so many different ways for families of all shapes, sizes, and income levels to contribute so that almost anyone’s schedule can be accommodated—often without ever leaving the living room!

For more ideas, check out 40 Ways Kids Can Volunteer, Toddler to Teen, which shows how to bring volunteering into everyday life. Note that volunteering often isn’t “official.” Perhaps your family does yard work and errands for a housebound neighbor. Or you compile information and pass out fliers to get a safety initiative passed through city council. Or you put on a garage sale and donate all the proceeds to benefit a local shelter. What is the “kid effect?” Even for the youngest children, volunteering offers a wonderful dose of can-do attitude, they learn that their own efforts can make the community a better place, and they realize that helping others is a natural human response to need. Plus, science tells us that giving makes us happy, from toddler on up.

In Portland, we are fortunate to have Hands on Portland, a non-profit that matches volunteers (children, teens, as well as adults) with opportunities throughout Greater Portland. The idea is to give people a smorgasbord of volunteer opportunities. You try activities in small bites. If you like something, you stay with that organization. If you don’t, you try something new.

Other resources include: