Teen Volunteers: Enriching Animals' Lives, Elevating Their Own
For animal-loving teens, volunteering with man’s best friend can be a richer experience than simply owning a pet. In the Woodinville 4-H Puppy Power group, for example, teens raise puppies to be service dogs.
“Emmalyn is completely in charge and responsible for her puppy,” says Snohomish mother Ann, describing her 15-year-old daughter. (Ann and Emmalyn requested that their last names not be used.) Both of Emmalyn’s older sisters participated in Puppy Power. Emmalyn tagged along and “just slipped into it,” Emmalyn says. “I wasn’t interested in any other extracurricular activities ― just service dogs.”
Participants in Puppy Power take on 8-week-old puppies to raise and socialize. They provide for all of the puppy’s needs ― food, medical care, exercise and transportation — and attend weekly training classes. When the puppies are between 16 and 22 months old, the puppies go to Canine Companions, an organization that screens, trains and matches up the dogs with someone who has physical or developmental disabilities.
“It was important to get my child involved in raising a service dog and doing community service every day,” Ann says. “The kids pour so much time, work, and love and affection into this with the hope of making it through the program. It’s a huge responsibility — and giving up a puppy is a hardship that builds character.”
Programs pay off
Richard Lerner, Ph.D., along with other researchers at Tufts University, found that community youth development programs such as 4-H, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pay off for teens in many ways.
Lerner’s team reports that teens involved in programs such as 4-H, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the YMCA have fewer problem behaviors than their peers. The study, which focuses on 4-H, finds that teens in the program contribute more to society and score lower on measures of depression and risk behaviors. such as alcohol, drug and cigarette use.
The participants in 4-H whom researchers followed earned higher grades than their counterparts, were more engaged in school, had a greater chance of attending college, and were more focused on science and technology careers. They were also more physically active — and more likely to keep their virginity through 12th grade.
Helping save horses
Tanner Wooding, 17, of Lake Tapps, volunteers with Save a Forgotten Equine (SAFE), a Washington state organization that rescues and rehabilitates starved, neglected, abused and unwanted horses, and finds new homes for them.
Initially attracted to the program because of her riding experience, Tanner soon realized there were additional — and very personal — benefits. “I like it because it makes me feel good that I’m able to help. Horse rescue is a good cause. Volunteering helps me improve as a rider, too.”
Tanner’s activities with SAFE include keeping track of the horses, helping at a dinner and auction, and representing the organization at a “feed drive,” where the organization collects hay, grain and supplements for horses.
“It’s always surprised me how maturely Tanner addresses each of her endeavors,” says SAFE member Jeanette Parrett. “She takes it very seriously.”
Volunteering with animals teaches kids skills they’ll use well into adulthood, says Leslie Anderson, Puppy Power leader. “They learn public speaking at a young age, they judge presentations, arrange events. They become well-rounded and ready for their future.”
Maria Bellos Fisher is a mom, freelance writer and blogger. Her blog, “Hereditary Insanity: Surviving family by the grace of madness,” is at mariabellosfisher.com/blog.
Looking to Volunteer? Here Are Some Opportunities for Teens:
4-H Youth Development
King County: 206-205-3100
Pierce County: 253-798-7160
Snohomish County: 425-338-2400
Canine Companions for Independence
Provides assistance dogs for people with disabilities
Seattle Humane Society
Must be 18 or older
Save a Forgotten Equine (SAFE)