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Youths have different motives, needs, and are a secret weapon of volunteering

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27 2012 4:30 p.m. MST

Lauren Beckett, left, and other volunteers from the University of Utah Bennion Center wrap gifts for refugees at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

The teenager thought about the children she was helping as she carefully wrapped underwear, toys and other presents with youthful enthusiasm and a smile.

"It makes it special to think how the kids will react on Christmas," said Lauren Beckett, 19. "It feels good thinking about how my work will affect other people."

She was not alone. Dozens of teen volunteers from the University of Utah's Lowell Bennion Center joined Beckett on a recent Friday afternoon to wrap Christmas presents for local refugee children, many of whom have never experienced Christmas.

Like Beckett and her friends, most youths want to get involved — 93 percent of teens say they want to volunteer — but there is a major gap between those who want to help and the percentage who actually volunteered last year — just more than 50 percent, according to dosomething.org.

Despite the potential impact for good that youth volunteers like these can have, teens and younger children are not always targeted by organizations that could use their help, and many kids never volunteer.

"For charities, young people are a secret weapon," according to a new, groundbreaking study this year by dosomething.org, an organization for teens and social causes. Nonprofit groups and other organizations need to better suit their programs to youths, experts say, to close the gap between those who want to volunteer and those who do.

Youth movement

The dosomething.org survey was unique because it was the first known comprehensive survey that incoporated youth volunteers ages 13 to 15, said Bob Filbin, the survey's primary author. The survey also included a more inclusive definition of youth volunteering that wasn't limited to traditional volunteering with organizations.

"Young people don't really use the word 'organization' today," Filbin said. "Young people are thinking about volunteering in more diverse ways."

Another major finding of the survey was that youths volunteer largely because their friends do.

"Young people are volunteering more for the social experience," he said. "Issues can matter. Friends can be the deciding factor."

Beckett, who is the freshman service corps director at the University of Utah, said the chance to make friends is a major selling point in getting students involved in volunteering.

"Service is a great outlet for meeting new friends and good people," she said.

This need for belonging is important in understanding the volunteering practices of youths, said Doug Swanson, national program leader for 4-H.

Groups are powerful vessels for creating a culture of volunteering for youths, he said. 4-H builds youth leadership by providing hands-on volunteering and collaborative experiences.

Reece Elemer, 17, of Sevier County, Utah, is a member of 4-H and said the influence of his friends was a major reason he got started in volunteering.

"My friend was really big into volunteering and he said, 'Hey come do this with me.' So I did," Elemer said. "One of the best things about volunteering and 4-H is that you can be with your friends."

Youths bring certain assets to the table, including creativity and a desire to learn and create change, Swanson said.

"Youth get very passionate very quickly," he said. "They are very caring and have a sense of 'Hey, I can really do something here.’ ”

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