Volunteering: how to find your niche

animal volunteer

Take me to the library!

In fifth grade, my teacher challenged every kid in my class to “do something to change the world.  Starting today.”  Every eleven-year-old in the room nodded, hopeful but also doubtful. Change the world, you mean, like, plant a tree?  I wondered.  What could a fifth-grader do the change the world?

One of my friends decided she was going to volunteer at an animal shelter.  She did all the research, and found exactly one shelter in all of Seattle that did not specify the minimum volunteer age.  This was Animal Talk Rescue, a non-profit, no-kill hole-in-the-wall with an owner who might have been just a little crazy.  In a good way, of course.  My entire friend group decided to start working there, and over the next two years I logged over 100 hours cleaning mice cages and feeding the iguana (his name was Boot).  It was a good way to get started volunteering, but didn’t really offer me any experience I could actually use.

I stopped going to Animal Talk somewhere in the seventh grade, mostly because I didn’t feel I was of any use.  My friends and I were not the only ones who had struggled to find suitable volunteer locations, it seemed.  Because of its lack of a minimum volunteer age, the people at Animal Talk were almost exclusively high-schoolers struggling to complete their service learning credit.  There were so many kids who wanted to work there, you had to sign up for spots sometimes months in advance.  I couldn’t help but wonder, am I really doing anything worthwhile, or am I just filling another spot?

The reason volunteer organizations have a minimum age requirement seems to make sense: young children can’t do as much work, are usually less responsible, and then there are liability issues associated with underage volunteers. That’s why many reputable organizations don’t allow kids to volunteer: they just don’t want to have to deal with it.

This poses a serious problem because many high schools require at least 60 hours of volunteering to graduate, and many colleges look at service learning when choosing from applicants. If there are no places to volunteer, how are we supposed to get these hours?

I am not suggesting removing the service learning requirements from high school graduation. On the contrary: I think volunteering is extremely important for kids.  Service learning teaches kids responsibility, working under an adviser (like in the workforce) and the value of hard work.  I do think it is ridiculously difficult to find opportunities, however, and if schools are expecting students to do this, then they should offer advice on how to go about this.  Learning this process will be useful not only immediately for finding volunteering, but also in the future for finding jobs and communicating with employers.

In lieu of a How-To brochure, here is some advice based on my experience searching for the perfect volunteer opportunity:

  • First, make sure the location is near to you. I know it sounds obvious, but I have lost count of the number of volunteer opportunities squandered because of geographical location.
  • Second, realize that too much volunteering can be just as bad as too little.  Last summer, I was volunteering at three places simultaneously and it was just too much; I couldn’t spend enough time at any of them and I had near-constant scheduling conflicts.
  • Another thing to know is that with the pre-existing limitations in kids volunteering, you can’t really be too picky as to what you actually do. Yes, ideally you would be spending your time helping a cause you are passionate about, but realistically it’s unlikely that will happen.
  • Finally, an important thing to consider is whether you want a long-term volunteering experience or a one-time volunteering thing. Long-term volunteering experiences are generally favorable to one-time volunteering opportunities because they offer more service learning hours and give you more time to learn what you’re doing, which means you can spend your time actually helping and being useful instead of just learning how to.  Long term volunteer opportunities are also better for job experience and have the potential to really teach you a skill. For finding these kinds of opportunities, I recommend the website Volunteer Truist.  There are a lot of results and only some of them will work, but it is the best website I have found so far. 

Unfortunately, long-term volunteering opportunities are way more difficult to find than single events. If you are looking for one-time volunteer opportunities, however, I recommend Volunteer Match.  At the very least these can get your foot in the door and give you a few hours of community service.

Overall, though, there really is no solution—at least not yet.  But hopefully this helped a little, or at least made you realize other kids are also struggling with this.  Happy volunteering!

–Maddy, Northeast, Teen Adviser





Editor’s Note:  Here are more resources to match you up with a great volunteering experience!

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