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.
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.’ ”
Youths tend to excel in volunteering related to animals and mentoring, said Robin Chappelow, program director for Kids Korp USA, a nonprofit youth volunteer organization that engages youths as young as 5 in community service. Kids she interacts with do indeed value the camaraderie that comes with group volunteering.
"Peer pressure in the group is always huge," she said. "The kids want to be where their friends are."
As kids get older, they begin to volunteer for slightly different reasons, including building college resumes, she said. Kids Korps tracks the volunteering hours of youths, providing an added incentive.
"We are trying to get them hooked on it (volunteering) at a young age," she said. "However we can get them in the door is a good thing."
The description of youths as a secret weapon was meant to alert nonprofits and organizations to the potential of youths, Filbin said.
"Young people are very effective at talking to adults and convincing adults to donate to causes," he said. "Young people may not have a lot of money, but they can be much more convincing than emails and newsletters."
While youths bring different assets to the table, they also face different obstacles to volunteering. Lack of transportation and overall resources was a major roadblock cited by experts.
"Youth don't have a chain saw in the garage and don't have the money to buy supplies," Swanson said. "They also may not have cars and sometimes youth require a lot of supervision."
Nonprofits and organizations need to address the common misconception that youths are unfit for volunteering, Chappelow said.
"Kids do have talent, kids do have time, and kids do have energy," she said. "But it's hard to convince agencies that kids can do a job. Even a 5-year-old can put butter on every piece of bread in a homeless kitchen."
Many times, organizations view teens as apathetic and unresponsive, so the invitation is never extended to them to volunteer, which is a problem, Filbin said.
"If the opportunities are available, such as jobs being close to home and flexible, and young people are asked to engage, then they will," he said.
Organizations need to do a better job of framing the volunteering event as a social gathering where youths can interact and have fun, Filbin said.
Youth volunteering trends
Youths are interested in episodic volunteering, or volunteering for a short amount of time without long-term commitment, Swanson said. This can be both beneficial and harmful to the volunteering process for the youths and the organizations.
"If you want to develop skills and character and you want to make an actual difference, you need the volunteer experience to be more in depth," Swanson said. "It really needs to be more than episodic if you are trying to build a lifelong commitment to volunteering."
Despite the potential drawbacks of episodic volunteering, it can be beneficial depending on the context. The main point is that organizations need to be aware of it.
Episodic volunteering can work well if there is large-scale cleanup that needs to be done for one day. As long as the event is kept casual, it will likely appeal to youths, Filbin said.
He compared volunteering to a party where youths want to come and go as they please and not feel pressured to commit to something.
The social aspect of service, which perhaps influences youth volunteering habits the most, is too often overlooked, he said.
"The influence of friends is sometimes more important for youth than the actual issue," Filbin said. "This is something that a lot of organizations miss. Youth want to spend time with friends and do something positive for the world."
The attitude that youths bring to any task may be their greatest assest, Beckett said.
"We can turn any situation into a fun situation," she said. "I love doing service because volunteering opens your eyes to what's really out there."
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