Bending over, an unexpected tongue slathers drool over my forehead. Standing up quickly to wipe my face, a paw darts out to swat my arm. Jumping back, my foot kicks against a bowl of water on the floor. Slobbery, bleeding and wet, this is just another weekend at the rescue shelter, and I love it.
Over a year ago my DS, inspired by the show Hope for Wildlife, wanted to visit a local animal shelter. One tour and a dog cuddle puddle later, DS was hooked and wanted to volunteer. My feeling was one of reluctance…another thing to do.
We started one cold fall Saturday and haven’t look back since. Now I know that even if my DS decided he didn’t want to come anymore, I still would. I’m addicted…nothing beats the enthusiastic greeting of animals who recognize you or earning the trust of an ornery critter that months before growled when you made eye contact.
There are many volunteer opportunities for kids and teens; however, there are not many places in my experience who are great at providing real experiences that hook kids and teens and instigate an emotional connection. Many of them turn out to be manufactured opportunities to make your child feel like they are making a contribution (they know it’s fake, so no emotional connection) or are so frightened of litigation that your child is micro managed and grows frustrated and bored (understandably!).
These are some elements of a great volunteer opportunity:
- Provide real experiences. What the adults do, the child/teen do (I would add within the limits of attention span..sometimes allowances have to be made for doing a little less real work rather than making it a miserable experience by making them do too much for too long).
- Trust their volunteers and value common sense. Have your volunteer sign the waiver, train them well and then let them go to it.
- Have a diverse group of individuals running and volunteering in the organization. Every age has a contribution and you need the energy of the young, the wisdom of our seniors and the bridge of ages in between (some of our worst volunteer experiences have been run by senior women only).
- Flexibility and freedom. Have expectations of the volunteer position, but let the volunteer add a little extra. Have them check in first before they do something different, but within reason let them own it.
- Treat them as valuable assets to the team.
There are two sides to every situation though, and this is what child/teen volunteers need to bring to the table as well.
- Interest. Do not make your child/teen to volunteer to build their character. Volunteering is only one of many ways to contribute to our world. They need to find theirs.
- A trusted adult to accompany the minor if requested by the volunteer organization. They are not babysitters.
- Dependability. Show up on time and as per schedule. Organizations do not need flaky volunteers.
- Take time to learn the ropes. Don’t try to change the organization to the way you think it should run. Learn how things are done and do them. Suggest change when you are asked your opinion or have earned the right to have an opinion by showing up and doing your work well.
- Bring a positive and helpful attitude. A sense of humor and a we’re in this together attitude without any prima donna tendencies earns respect. Be willing to do a little extra if the situation calls for it and don’t complain.
- Humility. Don’t expect to be idolized for your contribution. Feel good about contributing, but find your fulfillment in just being a part of a great organization.
Volunteering at this shelter has been amazing for my family. Initially we were under the impression that we were helping out; however after a year, we know better. The fulfillment being there each week and watching so many staff and volunteers work their hearts out humbles us, and we are the ones who feel grateful and privileged to be allowed this opportunity.