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Grace Smathers (far left) trains new teen volunteers at the Longmont Humane Society. She formed an especially strong bond with Titus (pictured below)—“one of those dogs that will stay with me for a while,” even after he gets adopted. (photo courtesy Brooke Etnyre)

Kids Pitch In!

By Ruthanne Johnson

Shelby Dix is a typical 14-year-old girl. She plays softball and likes math and science. She’s learning the violin and loves to swim and hike. She and her mom have a medley of pets “and lots and lots of plants.”

Shelby Dix (center) volunteers for the West Boulder Senior Center, helping serve dinner and assist elders every Tuesday. She also helps out in the office during summer vacation. (photo courtesy Meals on Wheels)

But every Tuesday night, Shelby skips the usual activities to serve food and drinks to seniors at Café Classico in the West Boulder Senior Center, where Meals on Wheels cooks up affordable lunches on weekdays and dinners on Tuesday. She’s been volunteering there for two years and she knows all the patrons. It’s where she learned about helping people in wheelchairs and how to host, serve and clean up at a restaurant. It’s where she discovered how much she loves hearing the seniors’ stories and telling them about herself. And where she gently learned about death when one woman she visited with every Tuesday suddenly stopped coming.

Shelby also volunteers with Circle of Care Project, a Boulder-based nonprofit that provides homebound seniors with free tickets and transportation to cultural, educational and social events. She’s sort of a surrogate granddaughter to the folks she’s paired up with for shows. She likes seeing the different performances and chatting with her dates. “It’s always someone different to talk to,” Shelby says, which makes the evenings interesting.

Shelby is part of a growing number of teens signing up to volunteer for everything from helping the elderly to walking dogs at the local shelter and fundraising for their favorite cause. Between 1989 and 2005, the percentage of volunteering teens has risen from 13 to 28 percent in the U.S. And for good reasons.

‘A Broader Sense of the World’

Studies show that young people who volunteer are more likely to have better grades, attend college and achieve academic success. Colleges actually look for volunteer activities on student applications. Volunteering develops social and leadership skills and the feeling of social responsibility. It nurtures empathy and empowers kids to realize they can make a difference.

“Kids who volunteer are learning new things, meeting new people and having conversations and experiences beyond home and school,” says Jane Piliavin, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been studying the research on the effects of volunteerism on the volunteer since the late 1990s. “It helps them gain confidence, learn new skills and develop a broader sense of the world.”

Shelby’s mom has seen the benefits. “Older people are always so excited about having young people around,” says April Dix, which makes Shelby feel good about herself. “She also sees some amazing music and cultural events that as a single mom I can’t always afford.” And then there are the volunteer hours she’s building for her college applications. “Colleges like to see a minimum of 75 to 80 hours of volunteer work,” April says. “Shelby already has three times that, and will have a solid six years of volunteering by the time college rolls around.” In May, the city of Boulder gave Shelby an “Outstanding Youth Volunteer” award—another nice addition to her résumé.

Learning from a Gargoyle

Longmont resident Jackson Erb, 14, is part of a volunteer youth group called the Gargoyles, who stand near trash cans during Niwot’s summertime Rock & Rails events and provide festivalgoers with recycling guidelines. He also volunteers for the Longmont Humane Society’s Feline Friends program, helping to engage and socialize cats coming up for adoption. Spending time with cats in the shelter’s colony room has taught him that cats like to spend time with humans. The quiet, he says, gives him an opportunity to escape from all the “busyness” of his life.

Jackson Erb (center teen) volunteers with the Gargoyles, a youth group that helps with recycling events at Niwot’s Summertime Rock & Rails events. (photo courtesy Beth Rolison)

Jackson’s mom, Beth Rolison, says volunteering for Rock & Rails has been fun for him. “They have food trucks and bands, and when the train goes by everyone waves.” People thank him for being there and at the end of the summer there’s a party for the volunteers. “He used to be sort of shy,” she says. “Now he’s articulate.” He’s also knowledgeable about recycling and environmental issues. “God forbid I throw something in the trash that can be recycled,” she says with a chuckle. “But he is teaching me, and that’s a really valuable lesson for him to be able to do that.”

Volunteering has brought new and rekindled friendships for Jackson, who’s also discovered that he’s pretty good at fundraising. Last summer, he organized a Pokémon event at a nearby park to benefit the animal shelter. He learned how to apply for permits to hold public events on city-owned land, coordinate a small army of helpers, and use social media to set up the game and collect money. The event made the local newspaper, and Jackson’s efforts garnered $651 for the shelter.

Lessons for Life

Piliavin suggests introducing kids to volunteering around 7 or 8 years old. “Before that, kids don’t really have the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes,” she says. Also, make sure their schedule can accommodate the hours. “One thing I see for teenagers these days is overinvolvement in too many activities.” Service-learning courses are a great solution because they provide volunteer hours and educational credit.

Social modeling can also help spark interest, Piliavin says. “Volunteering yourself or going with them for the volunteer experience can make it more appealing.” Rolison suggests finding a volunteer opportunity connected to your kid’s natural interests, which was animals for Jackson.

Grace and Titus—“one of those dogs that will stay with me for a while,” even after he gets adopted. (photo by Ruthanne Johnson)

Grace Smathers, 14, has been volunteering at the St. John’s Church Food Bank in Longmont since she was 8 years old, filling up boxes and leading people to the food shelves. “I couldn’t even see over the boxes when I first started,” she remembers. Her experience there has brought her close to clients from different socioeconomic groups.

“People tend to think down of others who don’t have enough to buy food,” she says. “But once you meet them, you realize these are just real people who have come upon problems, and they are trying to fix them. It helps me realize that even if someone is having a harder time in life and on a different walk in life, that doesn’t make them any less of a person than anyone else.”

Grace also volunteers at the Longmont Humane Society, where she’s learned how to clicker train and handle fearful dogs. She now helps trains new volunteers. “It’s definitely helped me with patience,” she says. “Sometimes, we’ve got 30 to 40 kids in the kennel at one time and all the dogs are barking. It’s helped my leadership skills and being able to communicate with people when there is so much going on.”

Last year, she and some friends put together a school presentation on the so-called “bully breeds,” such as pit bulls and Rottweilers. “We had pictures of them in their kennel and playing, which was meant to crush stereotypes,” she says. “A lot of people came up afterwards to say they were inspired to adopt rather than go to a breeder.”

Grace recently applied to the National Honor Society for designation as “gifted and talented in leadership.” The organization relies on references, she says, which rolled in from people with whom she has volunteered.

“Volunteering is a great thing to be a part of, whether you do it for a few months or a few years. It gives you some amazing experiences and will help you with confidence,” she says. “And you never know what opportunities will come out of it.”


Ruthanne Johnson is an award-winning journalist who loves discovering unique destinations, promoting animal welfare and environmental conservation, and exploring new ways to better herself.