“I am so glad I am here,” the teenage girl next to me says as she heaves clunky binders and packs of notebook paper into marked boxes. We are in the back of a box truck on a warm summer day in the south. A cool breeze blows my hair into the sweat droplets on my face as I hand her additional supplies to sort from a shopping cart.
“This is so much better than staying at home. At home I would have nothing to do,” she explains. We are sorting through school supplies that have been donated by the community to help local students who are unable to afford to buy their own supplies for the new school year. After this we will bring them to the social workers who will distribute them to needy students by visiting local motels and letting families “shop” for free before school begins.
We have done this event for over five years now. Some students come back year after year to help. And each year, I am always so thankful for our student volunteers and the perspectives they bring. Surprisingly, they are usually pretty happy to be volunteering.
“Why?” You might ask. I think it is because volunteering provides an opportunity for kids to participate in something bigger than themselves. This is often a refreshing change and a new experience for teens who grow up in a culture that is often very focused on the self. In addition to providing the opportunity to participate in a project that benefits others, community service offers some major benefits for teen (and adult) volunteers:
Improved Health and Longer Life
A review of the research, demonstrates that volunteering is good for both physical and mental health. In fact, people who volunteer on a regular basis experience about a 20 percent reduction in mortality. Volunteering increases social contact, gets people out of their houses, involves them in the community, and gives them a sense of purpose. This in turn, decreases loneliness, which can have a huge impact on health since social isolation has been linked to high blood pressure, strokes, dementia, and heart attacks. Keeping our kids active and involved is important to their overall health and also beneficial to their mental health. Volunteer work is just one way to accomplish this.
Volunteering and the Happiness Effect
Helping others is not just beneficial to those being helped; it has a positive effect on the person who is doing the helping. It turns out that doing good makes people feel good. Volunteers who participated in at least an hour (but not more than 10 hours) of volunteer work per month experienced increased well-being, life satisfaction, and reduced levels of depression. Parents often worry about teens’ mental health but don’t know what to do to help. Volunteer work can help young people to feel less isolated and a part of something larger than themselves.
Enhanced Balance and Lower Stress
Although many of us have the desire to volunteer with our kids or to have our kids volunteer, we often do not because we are just so busy. We worry about scheduling the time to do good among many other commitments that we hold for work and family duties and the various activities that our kids participate in. We think, “Won’t it just cause more stress” or “That would be nice, but who really has the time”?
It turns out you will, but only if you volunteer. Counterintuitively, it seems that people who work and also volunteer are happier overall with their work-life balance, regardless of the amount of free time they actually have. In addition, they tend to feel less stress and job-related burnout. It seems that the act of giving your time away is actually more beneficial than even spending it on yourself, in that it makes you feel happier and gives you the sense that you have more time to work with.
Decreased Substance Abuse and Destructive Behavior
According to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young adults ages 18 to 25 report the highest rates of substance use and dependence. However, it has been found that engaging young people in prosocial behaviors, such as volunteer work, makes them less likely to engage in these risky behaviors. When adolescents and young adults participate in positive structured programs that promote doing good and helping others, it also benefits them by aiding in their moral development. We all want to raise kids who are kind, helpful, and considerate. It turns out that the development of these prosocial traits may also protect them from engaging in extreme risk-taking behavior.
Learn Life Skills and Work Ethic
Volunteering can be an important way for kids and teens to learn new skills, be exposed to new perspectives, and explore interests, while engaging with the community. Much like a job, volunteer work can teach young people about interacting with others, punctuality, reliability, responsibility, and task-completion. Through service work, even children too young to get a traditional job, can become problem-solvers and feel that they are able to make a contribution to the well-being of their community.This taps into critical thinking skills that are often underutilized in traditional school settings.
The benefits of having kids volunteer are many; not to mention that volunteer work is often a key component of a successful college application. But have you ever wondered why this is? Experiences as a child, including volunteer work, have an effect on the life-long values and sense of purpose that a person has as an adult. In addition, children who volunteer are more likely to become adults who are active in their community. Colleges are looking for individuals with something unique to contribute who have moved beyond focusing exclusively on themselves to demonstrate a willingness to serve the greater good.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC