Teenagers generally get a bad rap as lazy and apathetic, but I don’t buy it. When I was a teenager I wanted to save the world, and had seemingly endless amounts of energy to get the job done.
Way back at the turn of the century, I regularly volunteered with the Young Women’s Resource Center (YWRC) through their Chrysalis afterschool program for 10-14 year old girls. I quickly recognized that I was probably learning more than I was teaching, and wanted to bring some lessons back to my peers about self-confidence, healthy relationships, and reproductive health. The YWRC helped me start my own student group at Roosevelt high school that focused on building female leaders, offering educational opportunities on women’s issues, getting involved with local events, and even a bit of advocacy to our PTA and school board.
Looking back, I have a hard time imagining how I had the time or energy to devote to such a project. The idea of taking classes and completing homework assignments seems daunting enough. Yet, the idealism, creativity, and force of will that a teenager can posses should not be understated. I loved the community I developed when volunteering with the YWRC and organizing my peers, and I was more than willing to skip some television to keep it going.
Now, over a decade later, I have found my way back to the YWRC as their new Fund Development Coordinator – and it feels like coming home. There are two things I have come to realize in this transition back:
- Volunteer opportunities we can provide and encourage our teenagers to participate in can be life changing, and life directing.
- Teenagers can be an untapped whirlwind force for change that we should be tapping in to.
It would be a lie to say that my path from YWRC volunteer to full-time staff wasn’t a winding one. However, I can confidently say that my experience as a volunteer opened my eyes to the possibility of working with a non-profit as a career. Importantly, it was the consistent engagement as a volunteer that had the most impact. I had done the one-day volunteer projects with Salvation Army, and I helped out at the Iowa Jewish Senior Life Center a few times – but working with the YWRC was my first experience volunteering weekly and sticking with it for more than a month. I recognized what it was like to feel passionate about my work, and I didn’t want to work anywhere that didn’t give me that feeling ever again. I was hooked.
That’s not to say that every teenager who is engaged as a volunteer in a significant way will automatically be destined for the non-profit world. However, I would bet that most teens who find a love for volunteering early on will grow to be highly involved in their community, and champions for causes they care about later on in life.
Since returning to the YWRC, I have been impressed by the insight, ideas and personal strength of many teenagers who come through our doors. Our “Sheroes” are a perfect example of young women who have dedicated themselves towards making a difference at an early age, and who are primed to become the next big leaders in our community. Non-profits often dip into the deep pool of college student volunteers, but I would argue that our local teens are just as savvy and energetic – and likely a lot less over committed.
Local teen, Lexi O’Connor, recently kick started her own non-profit – Teens Against Human Trafficking – and has already been making waves. Focused on peer-to-peer education, Lexi has been speaking at local events, raising funds, and motivating other local teens to action. Recent Quasar award winner, Grace Rice, founded the Paws and Effect service club and annual fundraiser dog walk to support the training of service dogs for veterans and people with disabilities. These are the teens we should be spotlighting. Step aside Justin Bieber.
Coming back to work with the YWRC is a dream, and a bit of a blast from the past. I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten the encouragement to step beyond my personal teenage drama and help out. More than that, I likely wouldn’t be the engaged community member I am today. So, whether it’s reaching out to your own teenage kid or working with local high schools to promote volunteer opportunities – let’s make a commitment to look past the stereotypes and allow our local teens to show us what they are capable of accomplishing. I’m sure we will be pleasantly surprised.