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Doing Good: Teens Who Volunteer Make a Difference

Published on: December 29, 2013

Maddie Canty-Gill at PlayGarden.
Maddie Canty-Gill at PlayGarden.


Do you have a kid who is just starting high school or will be graduating this year? Are you thinking, "OK, this is the last year before my kid graduates and they need to get on the ball and complete their service learning requirements?" (Thankfully, I still have a few years to go before my kids even become teenagers — right now I just have to figure out about middle school for my oldest).

As many teens begin their freshmen year of high school, one of the first things they will find out is that they need 60 hours of community service to graduate. They have four years to complete these hours.

Grayce Mitchell, service learning coordinator at Ballard High School, explained it this way: "Service learning is giving time, without pay, to a nonprofit or government agency. Service learning allows students to learn and to apply academic, social and personal skills through real life, hands-on activities. Students make a difference and address authentic community needs."

In 2001, John Stanford, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent at the time, decided that graduating seniors needed to complete a community service requirement as a way to increase student involvement in their communities. Shortly after that, the Seattle School board implemented a formal service learning requirement.

Sounds like a good idea, right? It gets kids off the sofas, out of the house, and into the community, where they gain valuable job-training experience for their resumes. If you are worried that your kid won’t ever become a volunteer, maybe this is a way to get them excited about it.

"Students this age are working on figuring out who they are and where they want to be involved as they grow up," said Mitchell.

Finding the right opportunity

Mitchell encourages students to link up with a place that provides "structure, supervision, and support" to ensure a successful experience.

Check out the website of your high school for service learning opportunities or contact the service learning coordinator at the school. The important thing is to help your kid figure out their interests and what intrigues them. For example, your kid may enjoy animals or want to learn more about homelessness or have a desire to work with kids with disabilities.

Ken Courtney, a counselor from Garfield High School, mentioned several opportunities his students have enjoyed: Technology Services Corps, which refurbishes computers and provides travel opportunities to developing countries to install computer labs; Seattle Parks and Recreation, and several other Garfield student-run groups involving outdoor education and weekend retreats.

Other websites to check out for service learning opportunities:

United Way King County | Earth Corps | Volunteer Match | Phinney Neighborhood Association | Forterra | Mountains to Sound Greenway | Groundswell NW | Volunteers for Outdoors Washington | Friends of the Cedar River Watershed | Friends of the Seattle Public Library

Teens in Public Service

A great resource for students interested in getting involved in their communities is Teens in Public Service (TIPS). TIPS is a nonprofit organization that offers rewarding opportunities for kids ages 15-19 in the community by way of a paid summer internship. While TIPS internships do not count toward service learning requirements for the Seattle Public Schools, they are an excellent way for a student to gain real-life experience and get paid for it!

Maureen Brotherton’s daughter, Tia Heim, had worked in various summer jobs as a teen but was most excited about her volunteer work. Brotherton wondered if there was a way in which Tia could somehow have a meaningful experience working in the community and get paid for it, too. The two co-founded TIPS from the realization that it is possible to create a symbiotic relationship between nonprofits and energetic teens eager to make a difference.

I got in touch with a TIPS alumnus, Maddie Canty-Gill, 18, who recently graduated from Garfield High School and will be attending Western Washington University this fall. Canty-Gill was 16 when she participated in the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, a camp for kids with disabilities, as a camp counselor.

Although she was intimidated about working with kids with disabilities, the internship had a big impact on her.

"I thought it would be an extreme challenge, but I found out through my internship that it can also be extremely rewarding. Being able to provide these amazing kids with laughter and a safe place to play was an amazing feeling," she told me in an email.
Working in this environment helped Canty-Gill realize she wanted to study early childhood development and psychology in college.

"The thing I liked most about working at the PlayGarden was being able to work with the kids one-on-one and having a direct impact on a non-profit,” she said. “I wasn't just writing a check to an organization to help them."

TIPS will have its application for summer 2014 internships ready this month. Applications are due in March 2014.

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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