Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Teaching Teens to Serve Others

My 16-year-old son, Dylan, tells everyone that one of the most amazing experiences of his life was the trip he took to Costa Rica in the summer of 2005. Most people would assume that this was a vacation—that he was, perhaps, surfing the waves! But Dylan spent almost the entire ten days of the trip building houses for local residents. It was hard, dirty work. The conditions were primitive (no hot showers or air conditioning!), and the days were long. I never thought that my typical teen—who balks at having to mow the lawn—would be willing to climb up on a hot roof every day, but he loved every minute of it! The feeling of camaraderie with his fellow workers, and the eternal and loving gratitude of the people he was helping, made this an unforgettable experience.

Encouraging teens to do volunteer work is one of the most important things you can do for them as a parent. And the amazing thing is, once they get a taste of it, teenagers love to volunteer! In 2004, 55 percent of American teenagers volunteered—almost twice the rate of adults, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. And students who do volunteer work actually do better in school than those who don’t volunteer. Albert Schweitzer once said, “The only ones among you who will be truly happy will be those who have sought and found how to serve.” In fact, volunteering provides many benefits for teens, including increased self-esteem, a feeling of being valued, the opportunity to meet new people, the acquisition of valuable new skills, and a lifetime of wonderful memories and experiences.

Volunteer opportunities for adolescents aren’t difficult to find. Some organizations may have age restrictions if the job involves a certain amount of risk, but opportunities abound for all ages! One of the best places to start is with your local church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship. My kids have also found volunteer opportunities through the Parks and Recreation Department, hospitals, nature centers, libraries, children’s museums, community and teen centers, and just through word of mouth. My 13-year-old had a great time as a volunteer at a boat show, which raised funds for charity. Don’t be afraid to ask around. Most people jump at the chance to put a volunteer to work!

When teenagers learn to serve others, they become empowered. They grow up knowing that they can make a difference in the world. Just imagine what this kind of attitude can accomplish when our adolescents are soon the leaders of society! Making the world a better place starts by showing our kids how they can be part of impacting the future through volunteering.

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