Engaging Youth as Volunteers

Voices For Food is a program in Dakota County that engages stakeholders and community members to address food insecurity issues. In 2021, the program provided 19,494 pounds of fresh produce to families in need. Aside from one paid position, the coordinator Brenda Sale and Nebraska Extension, this program that operates to feed families is done entirely by its volunteers. In 2021, 163 volunteers across Nebraska participated in a project which grew and distributed produce. Of the 163 volunteers across the state, more than half of them (87) were right here in Dakota County. The 14 counties in Nebraska working on this food security program provided 6,700 hours of volunteer service. One third,  or 2,021 hours, were conducted locally in South Sioux City and Dakota City. 

But it was the volunteer contributions of some youth that provided lasting impacts for the program. During a time when people were unemployed, lost income, and were sick with a virus, local youth responded to a call to feed families. Dakota County collaborated with the Voices for Food project to pack boxes as part of the pandemic response in 2020. Four local youth packed more than 600 of the 1,383 boxes that provided food for more than 1,000 families. In a time when they were out of school, and could have been sleeping in and hanging out with their friends, they traveled to a neighboring community to meet the needs of a community that experienced an outbreak at a local facility. They got up early, worked several hours at a time in a fire station, often in the 90-degree temperatures of June and July. Katelyn Sale, Maddie Hinkel, and Nick Hinkel of Sergeant Bluff, and Aidan O’Mara of Moville, stepped in for a community they didn’t reside in to help people they never met. 

In a generation where youth are sometimes viewed as self-absorbed, and teenagers are seen as only thinking about how life affects their corner of the world, these kids represented a side of teens we don’t talk about enough. When given the opportunity to engage, they will step up to the plate. Extension Coordinator Brenda Sale said, “these kids were told what was happening with people being sick, and asked if they could help. They showed up for five weeks, and worked in hot temperatures. Often times when they pulled off their gloves, they were in a pool of sweat.” They never complained and didn’t receive a dime. They showed up every week to pack food, and helped load more than 100 boxes each week onto a truck for delivery. Volunteering with their friends gave them the opportunity to spend time together and do something for good.

Why engage youth

Volunteering gives teens an opportunity to gain experience for jobs and for healthy social engagement. Obtaining volunteer hours is not only good for their emotional well-being, but it also gives them hours of service that can be used for grants, scholarships for college, and to obtain acceptance into the groups such as the National Honor Society. While they didn’t do it for any credit, Aidan O’Mara and Maddie Hinkel were both able to utilize their work with this project on their National Honor Society applications, and both gained admittance, not just for their academics but also for their community involvement in this project. Their involvement in one project, connected them to more volunteer work, as Maddie and Katie continued to volunteer in the food pantry throughout the next year. When working on a National Honor Society project, Maddie’s first idea was to start a food pantry for kids in her school. While she discovered that area was already covered by another program, her volunteer work had pointed her into a direction of service she might not have thought of before. 

Teens who participate in extracurricular activities after school run a lower risk of delinquent behaviors; however not every student is an athlete. Volunteer opportunities can give kids another avenue to connect and work with other kids in their community. According to Volunteer PRO, research conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that “Teen volunteering has an impact on academic achievement, civic engagement, and health in youth and young adults. Teens with high levels of civic efficacy were more likely to say they are in ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ health (79% compared to 49% who never volunteer), and they were less likely to miss school.” Moreover, teens who participated in an organization that strives to make a difference are more likely to say they will attend college (72% who volunteer versus 50% who don’t).” 

How to engage youth

Recruit teens for your projects from their social group. Youth are more likely to show up when it’s an extra opportunity to spend time with their network. Recruit one teen, and then ask her to invite her friends. They are willing to do the work, but they also get extra time to engage in social interaction, which is vital for teens. Speak their language. If you want teens to respond, then you need to be in their social media environment. Youth will be more likely to respond to text, snap chat, or Instagram interactions than an email, and they probably won’t answer a ringing phone from a number they don’t recognize. Make kids aware that they are meeting a need. Despite the bad rap kids get for only caring about how things affect them, they want to engage, especially when they can see that it matters. Connect their volunteer work to their academics and college plans. Students will follow through with volunteer commitments if they can see how it helps their grades, or helps them on their path for college. Finally, teens are always hungry, so if all else fails, bring food!

If you are looking to connect your teen to volunteer opportunities, your local Extension office is a great place to start. Aside from programs in food insecurity like Voices for Food, they also have opportunities in 4H, County Fair, Robotics, and after school programs.

Brenda Sale is an Associate with Nebraska Extension. Brenda has worked for the Extension for 20 years and for the past seven years as project coordinator for the Voices for Food program. Her primary focus is creating system and environmental changes to increase food security in Dakota County.

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