Volunteering Makes a Difference
For Sarah Swagart, it wasn't an ideal childhood.
Swagart was molested at an early age, battled her own drug addictions and finally, at 14, was hospitalized for a serious suicide attempt. When she returned to school, Swagart felt "different" and alone. However, a community crack-down on skate boarders -- none of whom Swagart knew -- soon caught her attention. These were kids like her, she thought -- marginalized, different, without a voice.
But not for long.
Swagart took up the skate boarding teens' fight with city hall, working to change their image -- and hers -- ultimately helping to inspire and create the largest skateboard park in the Pacific Northwest.
In doing so, Swagart joined the growing number of teenagers volunteering their time to serve others, says Steve Culbertson, president and chief executive officer of Youth Service America, a national organization founded in 1986.
Youth Service America was formed in response to a renewed service movement that swept the nation during the mid-1980s. The organization's goal is to make service a common experience for every young person in America.
Today more youth than ever before are volunteering their time to make a difference in their communities, and about one-third of the nation's schools are incorporating service experiences into their classrooms.
"Right now, volunteer work is worth about $250 billion to our society," Culbertson says. "If we suddenly shut that off, our country would collapse in about three seconds."
The benefits of volunteering are as strong for teens as they are for our nation. The more involved a youth is in service activities, the less likely he or she will be to have negative behavior as a teen. There are correlations between increased volunteer work and lower rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy and other harmful behaviors, Culbertson says.
Sara Jane Boyers, a lawyer in Santa Monica, Calif. and author of "Teen Power Politics: Make Yourself Heard" agrees. "An active civic life gives a person -- especially teens -- the feeling that they have control over what affects them," she says. "Substantive volunteer work is often the first step to an active civic life."
Boyers, who spent four years researching her teen-centered book, found scores of teens who have made a remarkable difference in their communities by throwing themselves into worthwhile projects.
"When a teen is active and involved, there are many benefits," Boyers says. "There is a sense of self-worth that a teen has something to offer that can be accepted and recognized. Whenever a teen is involved and interested, there is simply less room for self-criticism and destructive temptations and behaviors."
Becoming a teen volunteer also helps to dispel the myth that "all teens are bad," Culbertson says. "If you landed in America from another planet and switched on the T.V., you'd think that all teen boys were on drugs and all teen girls were pregnant," he says. "The truth is, we've probably got the finest generation of young people in America right now, and no one knows it."
The reality, he says, is that 94 percent of teens sail through adolescence without any trouble.
One of the best ways for parents to get teens interested in service work is to ask their kids about the issues that are important to them. "As parents, we can offer suggestions, and help guide their decision-making," Culbertson says.
For example, if teens are performing a recital for parents, suggest the recital take place at a local senior center or children's hospital instead. Parents also can help their teens by taking a critical look at their community's needs. "You don't have to go very far out of your own life to make a difference," Culbertson says.
Boyers, the parent of two teens ages 18 and 15, has worked to keep them educated about the needs within their California community. Still, she doesn't force them into volunteer work, believing instead that it must be their choice to serve. However, by presenting the opportunity, Boyers, like other parents, is helping to guide her children to make informed decisions.
Local churches and youth service organizations often track volunteer opportunities, and the Youth Service America site offers a zip-code search to find service work at www.SERVEnet.org.
"Parents should be partners with their kids in service," Culbertson says. "Parents can be a real motivation."
It seems most American parents agree.
According to the 2000 Cone/Roper Raising Charitable Children Survey, an overwhelming majority believe parents play a key role in getting children involved. Ninety-six percent of Americans, in fact, think parents' charitable giving and volunteering is a good way to teach children about helping others.
It doesn't take a formal organization to become a volunteer. Everyone can make a difference where they're at. "You don't need an organization to tell you there's too much trash on the playground or that the river needs to be cleaned up," Culbertson says.