Ten Rules of the Road for Teens
- Figure out why you’re helping. Are you helping because you believe in the cause? Because you think the activity sounds fun? Maybe it’s because your friends or family are helping. It could be because your school requires community service hours. Or you think it would look good on a college application. Guess what? All of these reasons are perfectly good reasons to help. But it’s also a good idea to know why you’re helping – you’ll have a better experience and help others even more!
- Find something that you like and care about. There are a million places that can use your help and talent. And while some issues may be more pressing than others, you should choose a cause that means something to you. It could be anything: the environment, the homeless, seniors, endangered species or anything else. The fact is, if you’re helping a cause you care about, it will be easier to get involved and to make a difference!
- Pay attention to age restrictions. Many volunteer activities have age restrictions. This is usually done to keep volunteers safe, and it’s often dictated by the nonprofit’s insurance policy. This can be discouraging, especially if you have your heart set on helping a specific group. But rest assured that there are probably other groups in your area that help similar folks in need that want and need your help. If you’re having trouble finding one, ask the folks who told you that you’re too young to help – you’re probably not the first person they’ve had to turn away.
- Consider this: Is this a one-shot thing, or is it ongoing? It’s amazing how much teens can do. But before you make a commitment, take a good look at your schedule and your life, and make sure it’s a commitment you can keep. If you’re leading a project, you have lots of people counting on you – both the recipients who you’re helping, and the volunteers you’ve enlisted to help. (Maybe even the donors who have given you money because they believe in your cause.) And if you sign up to help on an ongoing basis – whether as a tutor, a mentor, a visitor or a helper – make sure you can see it through. Remember, there’s a real, live, breathing person who’s counting on your help. One suggestion: it’s easier to start slow and then add more, than the other way around.
- You can take the lead or create something. Volunteering can be a great way not just to help others, but to express yourself, too. Many kids have found causes that are important to them and brought tons of attention or lots of help or plenty of money to grateful nonprofits. Others have seen a need – such as collecting gently used prom dresses for disadvantaged girls, or books for low-income kids or money for disaster relief – and went into action to meet it. Kids listens to other kids, so if you have a cause, go for it! (And don’t be afraid to ask an adult for help. Chances are, they’ll know a thing or two – or maybe a person or two – who can be a great help, too.)
- Tell your family and friends. Whatever you’re doing for a nonprofit – working, increasing awareness, fundraising – you might find that you need extra help. The best place to start is your family and friends. Talk to them, text them, call them, convince them. This is a cause you believe in. They like you. (They’re you’re family and friends, after all.) Whatever great work you’re doing, your passion and enthusiasm will help spread the word and help the nonprofit fulfill its mission.
- Consider that: What to do if it’s not working out. Every so often, you’ll volunteer for a nonprofit, and things won’t work out. You might realize you don’t actually have enough time to help. Perhaps the nonprofit is expecting too much of you. Or maybe the nonprofit doesn’t have enough for you to do, and you feel like you’re wasting your time. The first thing to do is to give it some thought and see if you can fix the problem. Don’t be shy about telling the volunteer coordinator (or whoever brought you on) about your concerns; they want you to be happy. Or you might just decide that this nonprofit isn’t for you. That’s okay – but don’t just stop showing up: make sure the folks at the nonprofit know you’ve decided to help somewhere else.
- Respect other people’s passion. It’s incredibly exciting when you find a cause that speaks to you – to know you can help and really make a difference. And for sure, some causes seem more “important” than others. The truth is, some causes are more important than others. But it’s wonderful that so many people find so many different ways they want to improve the world. Please respect other people’s passions … even if they don’t always make complete sense to you!
- Be safe. Volunteering comes from a good place. You want to help make the world better. And with your help the world will be a better place. But there is a difference between being optimistic and being naïve. There are some people whose problems are so serious and deep that even the kindest and most patient volunteer cannot help them. And there are neighborhoods where crime is high, and it may not be safe to be at night, especially alone, and especially for women. If you’re unsure what to do, ask the people at the nonprofit. They know their clientele and they know their neighborhood. Remember: There are no stupid questions.
- Have fun! You’re working hard. You’re volunteering. You’re making the world a little better. You’re a teenager. You’re juggling this with school and friends and everything else you like to do. You may have volunteered your whole life. You may be a newby at this. It’s all good. Please: When you volunteer find something that you think is fun to do! You have a whole lifetime ahead of you to do nice things for others. Do something you enjoy. After all, the world needs you!