By Natalie Silverstein, MPH, author of Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference
After a hectic school year, full of academic challenges, extracurricular activities, sports, part-time employment, social pressures, and standardized testing, your teen deserves a break during the summer months. They may want to relax and unplug from the considerable challenges and disappointments of the last two years, as all young people have struggled with virtual learning, social isolation, and the unique pressures of navigating adolescence through a pandemic.
We need to encourage our teens to take care of themselves and their mental health by giving them the space and tools to do things that bring them joy and fill their cups with meaningful experiences. Some of those activities should absolutely include volunteering, being of service to others, and working to make a positive impact on the world.
I believe, and research clearly supports, that the “helper’s high” is real. Serving others makes us feel happy, less lonely, more confident, and more deeply connected. As the poet Maya Angelou said, “Among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” Why would we not want to give these gifts to our stressed and struggling teens?
If your teen is not going to sleep-away camp, enrolled in summer school, or working to earn extra money, they can explore ongoing volunteer opportunities in your community or consider creating fun and impactful service projects for themselves and their friends. Often, service hours earned in the summer are applicable toward school service requirements. Even if teens don’t “need” hours, volunteering keeps them busy, introduces them to new people, allows them to learn more about the issues they care about and the nonprofits making an impact in their community, and provides meaningful life skills.
These experiences may also come in handy while writing college essays or interviewing for a job, and they will certainly make teens feel good about the way they spent their summer: turning time off into time on for the greater good.
There are many ways for teens to utilize their talents, energy, skills, and enthusiasm to serve others during their summer vacation. Here are ways you can help them get started.
Help your teen brainstorm issues and causes they care about, identifying the problems that bother them and the questions they are curious about and want to explore more deeply. Direct them to search for nonprofit organizations in your community (or nationally) that are making an impact and help them identify the talents and gifts that they might share with these organizations.
Think expansively! Gifts and talents can take many forms. Maybe your teen is patient, or is great at explaining technology, has good penmanship, or is a fast typist. Pretty much anything your teen is good at or enjoys doing can be shared to help another person.
Encourage teens to commit to a weekly (or even daily) volunteer shift at a nonprofit they already support during the school year. During summer break, they can work to deepen their commitment to the organization and ask to take on additional tasks and responsibilities. They might even consider asking if they can be an intern (see more information on internships below).
Provide support for teens interested in hosting fundraising activities in support of a specific charity. The laid-back summer months are a great time for a variety of easy, fun, and crowd-pleasing fundraisers that will attract attention and encourage friends and other teens to volunteer. Teens can organize a car wash, lemonade stand, bake sale, drive-in movie night, swim-a-thon, or any number of other home-grown fundraising events. And don’t forget to remind them to be resilient when asking for donations or support. The worst thing a person can say is “no.” They should learn to greet every response—positive or negative—with a smile and an expression of gratitude before moving on to the next potential donor.
Suggest that teens get outside and make an impact on the environment through regular volunteering at a local park, community garden, farmers’ market, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, or green space. These areas are particularly active during the summer months, and they may need additional help to replace volunteers who depart on vacation. If formal volunteering isn’t possible, teens can gather a group of friends to clean and beautify a local green space and then celebrate their work with a picnic and fun.
If your teen is interested in politics and social justice, they might want to consider volunteering in the campaign office of a local candidate in an upcoming election. These offices typically need help answering phones, making calls, stuffing envelopes, managing social media accounts, and running errands. Your teen can research and identify candidates whose policies, ideas, and values align with their own and reach out to offer their creative talents.
If they’ve outgrown being a camper, teens can volunteer as a counselor at a local camp or summer program run by a nonprofit. There might also be a family in your neighborhood who needs child care help during the long school break but can’t afford to pay a babysitter. Befriending a younger child is a fun and meaningful way to spend time during the summer months, and this assistance can be a huge help to working parents in your community.
If you’re lucky enough to live near one of America’s national parks, they provide educational and volunteer opportunities for teens who care about the environment and preserving our natural resources—or teens who simply enjoy the outdoors. Volunteers of all ages are welcome at most national parks. Teens can search for appropriate opportunities through the National Park Service’s volunteer program.
Older teens might be eligible for internship opportunities offered by local and national nonprofits. Some internships offer a salary or stipend, but others simply provide valuable work experience and a deeper understanding of the nonprofit world. Many nonprofits now also offer virtual internship opportunities in a variety of areas, including social media support, fundraising, and connecting with clients who are unwell or isolated. Teens can make use of several national organizations for help connecting with nonprofits:
- AmeriCorps Note: Most AmeriCorps opportunities are for adults over the age eighteen, but some applications are open to teens who are sixteen or seventeen years old.
- Chegg Internships
- National Council of Nonprofits
- Teens in Public Service
It has been my experience that teens and young adults want to engage in this important work, but they often don’t know where to begin. As caregivers, we can provide the resources and guidance teens need to identify the activities that resonate for them, while providing support and praise for their accomplishments and efforts. Teens who are given the time, space, and encouragement to engage in this work during the quieter days of summer are more likely to continue the work during the school year and beyond, growing into the kind, grounded, and purpose-driven leaders of tomorrow.
Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is an author, speaker, consultant, and passionate advocate for family and youth service. Her first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, was published by Gryphon House in 2019 and was named one of the “10 Books for Parents Who Want to Raise Kind Kids” by HuffPost.
In September 2013, Natalie launched the first local affiliate of Doing Good Together (doinggoodtogether.org), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit with the mission of helping parents raise kids who care and contribute. As the New York area coordinator, she curates a free monthly email listing of family-friendly service opportunities that is distributed to thousands of subscribers. Natalie is a frequent writer and speaker on the importance of service and acts of kindness in family life, and she has presented to parents, educators, and children across the country. She has appeared on many popular podcasts and on the 3rd Hour of TODAY on NBC. Her personal essays have appeared on parenting websites Grown and Flown, Red Tricycle, and Mommy Poppins, and on the Moms Don’t Have Time to Write platform on Medium.
Natalie earned an undergraduate degree in health policy and administration from Providence College and a master’s degree in public health from Yale. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
Natalie is the author of Simple Acts.
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