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Volunteer Programs for Young People

Is it worth incorporating kids into a volunteer program? On one hand, a youth volunteer program provides a unique opportunity to help young citizens grow into compassionate adults, responsible and better educated pet caregivers, and supporters of animal protection. On the other hand, inviting kids to volunteer requires a much greater level of supervision and structured activities, and involves more liability.

It may be tempting for organizations to require that all volunteers be at least 18 years old to participate, but compelling evidence demonstrates why you should seriously consider involving younger people in your volunteer program. Volunteers who get involved as teens not only contribute financially and with operational support in their teen years, but also go onto be volunteers in their adult lives.

Potential Roadblocks

The challenges in managing a youth program—scheduling problems, dropout rates, and staff-volunteer conflicts—mirror those encountered in any volunteer program. Running a successful program requires a significant investment of time and resources in planning, organizing, training, supervising and evaluating. Working with minors raises unique questions as well. Do local laws limit the number of hours a minor may volunteer? Does your insurance cover minors? Do special provisions cover minors working off-site, such as at your annual dog walk? What about riding in your organization’s vehicle?

Opinions vary widely regarding whether to welcome volunteers who are minors and what kinds of tasks they should be given. Organizations sometimes avoid young volunteers because of the associated risks and liability issues or because they feel teens can be unreliable, difficult to supervise, difficult to schedule or unable (or unwilling) to make a long-term commitment. Some agencies require a parent or guardian to accompany minors during their volunteer shift, an arrangement requiring additional supervision for that extra individual. Other agencies restrict youth involvement to a well-structured humane education program or “camp” where the goal is education rather than hands-on assistance.

Research your options. Weigh the costs and benefits to determine if starting a youth program is a good move for your organization. If the answer is no, don’t let that stop you from collaborating with young people. There are many worthwhile ways of involving minors in your work with minimal risk and only a small investment of time. For example, instead of developing a formal, full-blown youth program and involving young people in direct care of animals, concentrate on enlisting their help with individual projects, such as an advocacy campaign, fund-raising drive, or public awareness initiative. Check with local schools about “service learning” programs, an excellent way of reaping the benefits of working with young people while at the same time avoiding some of the challenges mentioned above.

Service Learning

Service Learning is an educational model–a way of learning that lets students engage in meaningful community service as long as it relates to what they are studying in a particular class. Ideally, what kids are learning in the classroom should help them complete the service component of the program and the service component should add to the student’s knowledge of the academic subject. So, in the process of serving their communities, students gain practical knowledge of the subjects they’re studying: foreign culture, history, environmental protection, computer science, social studies—whatever the subject may be. By connecting students to their communities, service learning produces better, more active learners and more involved citizens.

There are five benefits of a service learning program: it helps you fill a real need in the community, it provides a variety of assignments, it attracts kids inclined to practice good citizenship, it’s generally long-term, and it helps you gain energetic advocates for your cause.

Many of the projects students might undertake for your organization lend themselves to the learning concept because the tasks are so easy to integrate with academic work. Students in computer and media labs or art and photography clubs, for example, often have access to state-of-the-art equipment and know how to use it. These volunteers can help develop or update your website and newsletter; help with graphic design; create school bulletin board s with photos and descriptions of animals available for adoption; and script and produce public service announcements to air on public-access television.

Young people can represent your shelter effectively at adoption sites and special events; organize collections of pet food and supplies in their communities; set up information tables in school cafeterias; and staff booths at conferences and exhibits.

Tips for Successfully Working with Young Volunteers

Screen minors just as you would adults. Require a commitment and give them clear job descriptions. Young people like working together and want opportunities to develop friendships, so keep that in mind when developing opportunities. You might ask your young volunteers to stuff envelopes or collate adoption send home kits in a conference room with pizza and a movie. This kind of work does not involve direct contact with animals, so you may have the added benefit of fewer liability concerns. Try to make service time fun, but don’t lose control and let it become the social hour–important work still needs to be accomplished.

Keep in mind, too, that the work must be meaningful. Involve young people in decision making; give them plenty of interesting, challenging and satisfying assignments; and make it clear how their work fulfills your shelter’s mission.

Sample Materials

In-shelter youth programs:

For programs with volunteers working outside the building:

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