Teenage community service is more than something that your mom insists will look good on your high school resume. It can point you to new interests, new friends, and if you’re really lucky, maybe even a lifelong career. And yeah, okay, it’ll also look good on your resume.
But where to start? “Volunteering” is a big word. How can you be sure you’re finding opportunities that are right for you? There are always easy entry points, like the service clubs at your high school or religious organization, but beyond that, the options can get overwhelming.
TeenLife is here to help! Here are 50 tips to help set you on the path to community service superstardom. Once you’ve read up, be sure to check out our full list of teen volunteer opportunities to find something near you.
Be a Self-Starter
Is your schedule maxed out? Having trouble finding organizations that fit your needs? Here are 10 easy ways to volunteer without making any long-term commitments.
1. Search your closet to find items in good condition that you’ve outgrown or don’t wear anymore. Take them to your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or shelter. It’s also work a call to schools and shelters in your area—most plan several clothing drives throughout the year.
2. Pick up some non-perishables to donate to your local food bank.
3. Certain shelters, fire departments, and foster parent organizations, alongside organizations like Fashion Delivers, welcome new or slightly used toys and stuffed animals. Whether you have a horde of Beanie Babies collecting dust in your closet, or you have some spare time to pick a bundle up, this is a quick and easy way to spread a little joy.
4. Buy some prints from a local nonprofit that empowers young artists. Your room looks great; teens in your community get to develop their talents. A true win-win.
5. For your next birthday, ask that people give donations to a charity of your choice instead of gifts. When you drop off the donations, ask about volunteer opportunities.
6. Send a package or cards to deployed troops, veterans, wounded soldiers or first-responders through organizations like the NROTC or Project Gratitude.
7. Create or join a campaign through DoSomething.org. You can choose the cause, the amount of time you have available and the type of service in which you want to participate (donations, face-to-face, events, taking a stand, etc.). For example, you can work to stop friends from texting and driving; raise awareness about domestic violence; or create activity books for children in hospitals. DoSomething is a great way to volunteer on your own schedule, at your own pace, and flex your creative muscles while you’re at it.
8. Collect children’s books and other reading materials for shelters, libraries and schools, then ask if they need volunteer readers.
9. You know how everyone always says “write a letter to your senator?” Write a letter to your senator. Find out when your senators or representatives are holding public meetings; attend them. It’s one of the easiest ways to make sure the issues you care about get to the ears of the people who can fix them. If this develops into a passion, consider attending a social justice summer program that shows you how to add power to advocacy.
10. Offer to rake leaves, shovel the driveway, or do housework for someone in need. It sounds a little Norman Rockwell, but it’s a great way to volunteer without even leaving your block. And people, it turns out, are pretty interesting! You might discover something fascinating about your neighbor or unearth a network of connections that was quite literally just around the corner.
You’re More Interesting Than You Think
Believe it or not, you’re probably harboring a treasure trove of helpful skills that you take for granted on a daily basis. Here are some tips to help you turn your hidden abilities into fulfilling service!
1. Sometimes the internet savvy that you were more or less born with can feel pretty useless—especially when you mostly use it to watch videos of otters befriending crocodiles to the tune of “Love Never Felt So Good.” In reality, though, growing up in the information age puts you at a huge advantage, and it’s pretty easy to spread your knowledge by doing something like teaching computer skills at your local senior center.
2. Math whizz? Science geek? So good at literary analysis that you can’t have a family movie night without lecturing your siblings about What It All Meant? Volunteer to tutor! If you excel in a particular subject, share your knowledge with other students who may be struggling. There are almost certainly agencies in your area looking for volunteers, but if there aren’t, organizations like On Giants’ Shoulders schedule tutoring sessions via Skype.
3. Itching to feel like Indiana Jones but worried you’re not fast enough to outrun massive boulders? Never fear, he was also a history teacher! Local museums and historical sites often need volunteers to be docents or tour guides, which is a great way to make use of your amateur interest in any number of historical periods.
4. Even if you don’t feel qualified to be an academic tutor, you can use the language you already speak as a valuable resource. Check with local literacy, immigrant or school groups to see if they need tutors for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.
5. Spend most of your free time on the field? Volunteer to coach or referee with a youth team. Your town recreation department, Boys and Girls Club or Y is probably looking for volunteers, and they should be so lucky that someone with your expertise.
6. Wizard with a pair of knitting needles? Many knitting shops, religious organizations, and libraries have charitable knitting groups where you can put your hands to good use and craft blankets, scarves or afghans for people in need.
7. Got a big vocabulary and a little time to kill? Test your skill on freerice.com. The organization will donate 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme for every answer you get right. Once you’ve made Webster proud, think of ways to collect donations for other food-relief organizations near you.
8. Believe it or not, the hours you spend on Instagram are good for more than just grandparent-complaint-fuel. Many nonprofits don’t have the bandwidth to run their social media accounts, and just by being a teenager, you’re in a great position to help out!
9. Put the knowledge you’ve gleaned from 600 weekly hours of “The Great British Baking Show” to use. Research charities in your area, and reach out to see if you can organize an age-old bake sale for them. Nothing says “outreach” quite like a fragrant pan of lemon bars.
10. Do you sing or play a musical instrument? Most people don’t! Volunteer to give music lessons to people in your community, or perform at local shelters or senior organizations. Many of these organizations have music therapy programs.
Test The Car Before Driving It Off the Lot
Not ready to commit to a regular gig? Volunteer for an event. Nonprofits usually recruit a ton of one-off volunteers for big events like festivals or block parties. By working one of these, you’ll get a feel for the way an organization works before you’ve signed away your life, and you can interact with other people who are more involved than you are.
2. Sign up to help with registration, water stops, setup, cleanup and other administrative tasks before an event.
3. Participate in a cleanup day at a local beach, trail, waterway or park.
4. Been told you’re “too old” to trick-or-treat because you’re “in high school” and “at this point you’re basically stealing candy from children”? Never fear. Dust off that old Jedi costume and put on your walking shoes, because no one will judge you if you’re collecting for UNICEF this Halloween.
5. Join other people in your community for an event associated with the National Day of Service in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This annual day happens in January around the MLK holiday, but the website has ideas on how to stay involved with causes year-round.
6. Mark your calendar! Earth Day is April 22, and a whole slew of nonprofits have planting or cleanup events to give the planet a well-deserved pat on the back. You can also check to see if there are any festivals in your area.
7. Passionate about a local, national, or global issue? Spurred by all those letters you wrote to your senators after reading the first part of this list? See if there are marches in your area that align with your beliefs, or—better yet—start your own!
8. Organize or participate in a sleep-out to connect with organizations that fight homelessness.
9. Thanksgiving is another rallying point for service organizations. Invite your whole family to volunteer with you at a local shelter near the holiday to aid in one of their large-scale meal operations.
10. Once you’ve donated your Beanie Babies, help charities in your area distribute them! Local organizations often host holiday parties or gift giveaways. Check with shelters, foster organizations, libraries, and religious organizations to see when they need volunteers or donated goods.
Commitment Is Scary, But Do It Anyway
Organizations love it when they can find consistent help – and (fine, mom) colleges like it when you commit to an organization rather than flitting through many different volunteer jobs. Here’s a list of organizations most likely to offer long-term opportunities.
1. Channel the energy you expend sending dog pictures to your group chat and start use it to help the real lives of real animals. Check the volunteer guidelines at your local animal shelter or ASPCA chapter.
2. Become a mentor to a younger student through organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters. They accept students over the age of 16 for their after-school mentoring programs.
3. Ask your library to see if they need volunteers for after-school clubs or children’s book groups. If you’re lucky, you could wind up performing afternoon puppet shows in a hat and a cape or having glitter thrown at you by a pack of third-graders!
5. Check out the opportunities at your local chapter of Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to homebound residents. You’ll get to see your community, forge new relationships, and maybe even share a meal with a new friend!
6. Volunteer at a crisis line that relies on teen volunteers as peer counselors.
7. Ask if you can drop by one of your local elder-care facilities to chat with residents who don’t have family or frequent visitors.
8. Love the outdoors? Environmental organizations need volunteers to do tasks like water testing, trail maintenance and animal management. If you’re a science kid, this might be a perfect match for your skills.
9. Sometimes, you’ve just got to live like you’re in a teen movie. Offer to babysit! But rather than watch your neighbor’s fearsome 8-year-old twins, contact a local women’s shelter, foster parent group, or social services department to volunteer your care.
10. Tap into your love of the performing arts and volunteer to usher at your local symphony or theater company.
Take The Reins and Be the Boss
Have a unique idea and a knack for organization? Start your own organization! Here are some of our favorite ideas from teens who’ve broken the mold and created their own volunteer opportunities:
1. Jonathan Woods established the Under the Tree foundation at 12, when he realized that holiday toy drives are often aimed at younger children and exclude teens who are also in need.
2. Inspired by family visits to her grandparents in India, Neha Gupta began Empower Orphans at the age of 9 (!!) The organization tends to the needs of orphaned children worldwide, with a particular focus on access to healthcare and education.
3. After reading a story about child slavery in the Toronto Star, 12-year-old Craig Kielburger began Free the Children. The organization aims to fight child labor on a global scale and has now reached well over 2 million children.
4. Zach Certner and his brother started SNAP, an athletic program for children with special needs, when Zach was just 10 years old. Now he’s 22, and the program is still going strong.
5. Shannon McNamara started SHARE, a nonprofit that provides thousands of girls in Africa with books and school supplies, when she was 15.
6. Kalin Konrad started an annual backyard carnival to raise money for Alzheimer’s research when she was in fifth grade after her grandmother was diagnosed with the disease.
7. Claire Fraise wanted to give dogs who would be euthanized a second chance. At 13, she started her own rescue organization.
8. Former anorexic teens Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran started Project HEAL to raise money for teens needing treatment for eating disorders.
9. LuLu Cerone founded LemonAID Warriors when she was 10 to help other kids make social activism part of their social lives.
10. Katie Stagliano started planting fruits and vegetables in her garden to start her hand in feeding the hungry. Her organization, Katie’s Krops, has helped feed thousands of people and has trained other teen gardeners to do the same.