Demand growing for young volunteers

March 18, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 2001, the Volunteer Center serving Howard County was established. Six years later, as more than 15 million children younger than age 18 volunteer nationwide, Howard County has seen a growing demand for volunteer opportunities for youth.

As a result, the center is working with more than 200 businesses and community organizations to match youth with suitable projects, said Michael-Anne Gomez.

"More than 18 percent of the volunteers in Howard County are under age 18," said Gomez, executive director of the Volunteer Center. "We want to be able to offer them opportunities to volunteer for projects they will enjoy."

Children are entering the volunteer arena through community and faith-based groups, Scouts and school.

Volunteering is an experience children need, said David Weeks, director of civic leadership and community service programs at Glenelg Country School. "By having children volunteer young, we're cultivating the seeds of community service," he said. "It's good for character development."

Weeks also mentioned service-learning requirements for high school graduation and making a difference as top reasons that children volunteer.

"Kids want to volunteer where they can see that they have made a measurable difference," he said. "They want to be able to look back on something with pride. Kids have idealistic energy, and so much good can come from that."

Brittney Henderson, 15, a junior at Glenelg Country and an aspiring pediatric oncologist, volunteers in the oncology unit of St. Agnes Hospital. She plans to volunteer next at the pediatric oncology department at John Hopkins.

"I want to have exposure to children in the hospital before I become a doctor," said Henderson, of Gaithersburg. "I don't want the first time I see a child who has cancer to be when they are my patients."

Another time, Henderson helped a family of six that was living in their car, she said.

"They weren't looking for charity, but they needed help," she said. "I got them numbers of people who could help them, and I went to my church. They got food and temporary shelter until they could get on their feet again."

Like Henderson, children are turning to organizations and projects that have touched their lives.

"We might have a child who has a friend or family member who died from a heart condition, so they volunteer to work for the American Heart Association," said Gomez. In some cases, parents decide what their children will do. For example, a 5-year-old girl made bag lunches for a homeless center and delivered them, she said.

"Her mother could have made the lunches in an hour, but she wanted her daughter to do it herself," she said. "After spending three hours making the lunches the little girl went with her mother to deliver the lunches."

Alexandra Hittman, 16, also works with impoverished people.

"Howard County is the third-wealthiest county in our nation," said Hittman, of Columbia. "But there are still people living here who don't have what we have."

To help facilitate youth volunteering, the center established a Web site that receives more than 20,000 hits each month. Newsletters and a teen guide are also distributed. "We try to keep people informed on the available volunteer opportunity," said Gomez. "We identify youth and family-friendly volunteer opportunities and list them on the Web site."

In a survey called the 21st Century Volunteer that was commissioned by the Scout Association in 2005 and compiled by Volunteer England, it said that students are looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities.

"Young people are looking for flexibility, the chance to make a difference, creativity and fun, when deciding which projects to volunteer for," Gomez said. "Before, they would come into an office and file papers, or pick up garbage along the road. Those jobs don't have a huge appeal."

The report lists belief in the cause, desire to share skills and experience, and having been touched by the cause, as primary motivations for youth to volunteer.

With those motivations in mind, Gomez, in conjunction with the Columbia Association, initiated Camp Make A Difference.

The summer camp includes two weeklong sessions for middle school children and two sessions for high school students. It focuses on one of five social issues - poverty, senior citizens, working with people with developmental disabilities, environment, and animal welfare.

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