Engaging Teens Through Service

High school is a game of priorities. With sports, music, studying, and social commitments, older teens have to be really interested or otherwise invested in a program if it’s going to find a spot on their already crowded calendars. One of the most meaningful ways to get high school students involved at the library is through offering a teen volunteer program. With the approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the National Day of Service, January is the perfect time to consider engaging older teens at the library through community service opportunities.

Why Volunteer?

Many high schools require community service as a condition of graduation. Of the schools that don’t assign service projects, many still require student council representatives or honor society members to commit to volunteering a certain number of hours. Community engagement is also an important component of many scholarship and college applications, and some teens have court assigned community service or an interest in developing resume worthy work skills. All this combined means that teens want to hear more about volunteer opportunities.

Better yet, volunteering teaches teens about giving back to the community and participating in something larger than themselves. The Corporation for National and Community Service and the President’s United We Serve campaign encourage students to give back to their neighbors on MLK day. In addition to providing a true benefit to the community, service projects can help teens reflect on what it means to provide a positive contribution to the community and the world. It also helps build several of the 40 Developmental Assets. By giving teens the opportunity to provide service to others and to fulfill a useful role in the community, library volunteer programs help teens learn positive values such as caring, responsibility, and a sense of purpose.

There are many different ways that you can incorporate volunteering into your regular program schedule, and with a bit of planning, you can insure the experience is mutually beneficial. Here are a few ideas to try at your library.

Ongoing & Special Projects

We all have lists of things that need to get done on a regular basis. From cutting scratch paper and sanitizing key boards to scanning inventory and searching for missing items, teen volunteers can be trained to complete recurring tasks. One teen volunteer at my library comes in every other week to water the plants. This position, like other teen volunteer opportunities, is treated like a job and reinforces the importance of being a reliable worker. Volunteers must fill out an initial application and log their hours at the library.

In addition to the list of ongoing tasks, teens can be enlisted to help with special project and events. Who doesn’t need help during summer reading? Teens help with set-up and tear-down, take pictures, and hand out prizes for the children’s program. While many of our helpers come to the library looking to volunteer their time, I also recruit some of our help during school visits in the spring. Many of these volunteers become regular attendees at other library programs.

One-Time Programs

While some teens enjoy volunteering independently and on a regular basis, there are many reasons you might decide to enlist the help of a group by scheduling a formal volunteer day or program. By setting a date for a volunteer event, you can complete large projects in a single day. You can also build an educational component into the event and provide time to talk about the experience. Teens may also enjoy the social nature of a group project and leave with a few new friends.

My community participates in an annual Day of Caring event where all teens are bussed to various volunteer sites around the county to participate in service projects. The library signs up as a location for teen volunteers. One of the perks of this arrangement is that teens get to select their sites so we receive young people specifically interested in helping out at the library, and because the event is on a set date with a large number of committed volunteers, we are able to plan for a major project that is both interesting for the teens and helpful to the library. Last year, the teens transformed the children’s library and Teen Zone for summer reading. Teens drew mad scientists, created bulletin boards featuring famous inventors, and hung decorations from the ceiling. They also learned about summer reading and helped me finish a large project in half a day. The best part was that the teens felt that their skills were put to use toward a worthwhile project that would be enjoyed by many.

The library also connects with the school district and the Office of Public Instruction to serve as a community service site for local teen clubs. Most recently, teens involved in the Montana Behavioral Initiative (MBI) spent half a day participating in a librarian directed service project. The students had a chance to learn about library resources and services and to provide some great help in the children’s department. After completing their service hours, the group set aside time to reflect on the experience and to discuss how teens can impact the community. The project aligned with MBI’s goal to “provide a place where students can practice positive-interpersonal, cross-cultural, and citizenship skills.” Students participating in National Honor Society, Key Club, or local youth groups might be interested in a similar opportunity.

Connecting Teens with Other Organizations

While getting extra help around the library is great, you can also help teens connect with other organizations. Invite a local non-profit to present to teens at your library and follow up by completing a worthwhile project as a group to benefit the organization. I posted earlier about my library’s partnership with Operation Military Kids (view that post here). In addition to other programs, we collaborated on a service project the week of Veterans Day. Teens made hundreds of handmade greeting cards for local veterans and the recently returned Montana Army National Guard 143rd Military Police Company.

There are many other non-profits in your community that might be interested in working with the library to both educate and recruit teen volunteers. Here are a few ideas:

  • Connect with the senior center and then co-host a tech tutoring event
  • Offer a knitting program that teaches teens how to knit hats for the Neonatal ICU
  • Host a presentation and volunteer sign-up event for the local animal shelter

What Other Libraries are Doing

Volunteer events have been both relevant to the high school students in my community and beneficial to the library. Here are a few other programs from around the country:

  • Book Buddies at Sno-Isle Libraries pairs teens with struggling readers in 2nd-4th grade over the summer.
  • Teen Library Corps (TLC) at the Orange County Library System writes reviews and helps at special events.
  • Study Zone volunteers ages 16 and up can help students with homework at the King County Library System.

How are you working service into your teen programs? Share in the comments.

About Rebekah Kamp

Rebekah works as the Youth Services Librarian at the Belgrade Community Library. She enjoys designing innovative programming for children and teens. When not at the library, Rebekah is an outdoor enthusiast who loves spending time with her children camping, hiking, and exploring in Montana.
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