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Creating Equitable Opportunities for Youth to Serve, Learn Skills, and Strengthen Communities

This is part of our Youth Expertise Series, in which young people use their experiences to write about how we can improve youth civic engagement and civic life.

By Brooklynn Gross, Augustana University, Sioux Falls

When teens and young adults engage with their communities, they can create change within society. Young people can offer a unique perspective on community issues, use technology in innovative ways, and collaborate with adult leaders to reach diverse stakeholders. Service is an important aspect of civic engagement, and it can have a profound impact on both students and their communities. Community service may include tutoring younger students, working on a neighborhood beautification project, or taking action to combat suicide, racial injustice, and other societal issues.

Throughout my years in school, I have participated in a variety of volunteer activities, both at school and independently. My favorite service activity occurred during my sophomore year of high school, when I presented a dental-health puppet show at libraries and elementary schools in my city. I loved interacting with the children, so I decided to pursue an education degree. Volunteering helped me practice my public-speaking skills and motivated me to choose a rewarding career. I believe that all students should have the same opportunity to serve. Educators and young people should work together to create meaningful volunteer projects that allow students to impact their communities and develop academic and career skills.

According to 2018 data published by CIRCLE, only 30% of young people in the United States had volunteered in the past year. If schools and universities incorporated volunteer service into the school day, more students would have the ability to impact their communities, develop life skills, and gain self-confidence. School is the perfect place to help students engage with their communities. Youth Service America states that young people are more likely to participate in service activities when they volunteer with their school, religious group, or youth organization. In order to encourage participation among all students, both K-12 schools and universities should include service as a core component of their institutions.

Incorporating service learning into the school day would give all students the ability to participate in volunteer projects. Some students are unable to pursue volunteer activities outside of school because they lack transportation or have after-school responsibilities, but youth and adults can work together to overcome these obstacles. For example, my high school offered several child-development classes that included weekly volunteer hours at local elementary schools. These volunteer experiences took place during our scheduled class time, so students did not miss their after-school responsibilities. We also arranged a carpool system, so students without transportation rode with our teacher or another student. This was an equitable volunteer project because all students enrolled in the course had the opportunity to participate.

After identifying barriers to engagement, educators and students should work together to design a variety of projects that are accessible to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Individuals living in low-income communities are less likely to take part in formal volunteer projects—often because they are not asked to participate. In their 2015 article, Jodi Benenson and Allison Stagg suggest an asset-based approach to service which recognizes the social and cultural power of individuals in low-income communities. Instead of simply being the recipients of volunteer efforts, people in these communities should be invited to plan projects and participate in the service itself. To implement an asset-based approach, schools should design curricula that compel students to learn about their communities and collaborate with community members. Teachers should also encourage students to identify needs that they have seen or experienced within their communities. Students and community members may recognize potential projects that educators could not identify on their own.

While working with community members to develop projects, schools should focus on donating time rather than donating goods in order to reap the largest benefits for students and the community. In my experiences as a K-12 student, the most common service projects were fundraisers, canned food drives, and coat drives—probably because they were easy to implement. These donation-based projects can provide essential resources to community members, but they limit participation from students and families who do not have extra resources to donate. While schools can still implement donation drives, educators should encourage students to give the most powerful gift of all: their time.

Donating time is more educational for youth: tossing a can of soup into a collection bin provides few learning opportunities, but volunteering at a soup kitchen can teach students about their communities and introduce them to new people. My elementary school gave students the opportunity to donate their time through a program called Book Buddies. This program allowed students in upper grades to read picture books, play games, and build relationships with students in lower grades. In third grade, my class even created a scavenger hunt with clues hidden around the school for our first-grade book buddies to find. Mentoring a younger child can help students realize that they have the ability to impact someone else’s life. This program also helps students develop literacy skills and creates long-lasting relationships between younger students and older students.

While some educators may worry that service-learning programs would reduce the amount of time spent on academics, educators can connect community service to their curriculum by allowing students to lead the planning and execution of these projects. In order to plan a project, students might interview community members, read the local newspaper, or use the internet to research different organizations. All of these activities connect to education standards in subjects such as language arts, social studies, and technology. Young people may also have more motivation to participate in class when they are learning through service projects, especially service projects that interest them. In a report from the National Conference on Citizenship, 82% of students in service-learning programs reported that their feelings about high school became more positive after participating in service learning, which suggests that engaging students through service can make school more interesting.

Skills for School, Career, and Life

Community service can also meet post-secondary learning objectives. My university offers an honors class in which teams of students develop proposals to improve the campus community. My team created a plan to improve the mental health of students on campus, and our project required us to practice public speaking, writing, and budgeting skills that supported the course’s educational goals. My group knew that our work could potentially impact our peers, so we were motivated to give our best effort in the class. Community projects can provide a new and interesting way to learn course material and apply it to a real-world situation.

In addition to gaining academic skills, students can also learn life skills from community service activities. GenerationOn explains that volunteering can help young people develop 21st century skills—such as problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership—that will benefit them in their personal lives and in the workforce. When I was in high school, I participated in South Dakota’s Teens as Teachers program, through which I taught nutrition and health lessons to a class of fifth graders. This program helped me develop teaching skills like lesson planning and classroom management, and it also taught me about public speaking, problem-solving, and communication. My mentor teacher was the main reason for my success in the program. Whenever I visited her classroom to teach her students, she treated me like a colleague and gave me the freedom to plan and present my lessons independently. When adults give students the autonomy to plan and implement their own projects, students gain confidence and develop leadership skills.

More young people will have the opportunity to serve their communities if schools help students engage in interesting, equitable volunteer work. Right now, service is more important than ever as our society grapples with the current health and economic crises. If more young people work with their communities to deal with these problems, both students and their communities will become stronger and more resilient. This school year, traditional service projects—such as charity bake sales and nursing home visits—may be impossible in our socially distant world. However, I am confident that educators and young people will work together to implement projects that will prioritize health and safety while also impacting society. Young people could write letters to isolated seniors, pick up groceries for a neighbor, or use social media to raise awareness about mental health. When students engage in service, everyone benefits: students gain lifelong skills, and communities gain assistance to combat current challenges.

Educators can view this school year as an opportunity to introduce young people to the power of volunteerism. In schools that have adopted a hybrid model, students could complete service projects during their time away from the classroom. Students could also find ways to serve one another during virtual learning; they could present lessons to younger children on Zoom, tutor their peers online, or help their teachers resolve issues with technology. Students can use their creativity and fresh ideas to design initiatives that improve the lives of individuals. If students and teachers work together, young people can play an essential role in rebuilding our communities and strengthening our society.


Brooklynn Gross is a junior at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD. She hopes to become a high school English teacher.