Some Unsolicited Advice for High School Freshmen

How to find a place to volunteer your time so everyone wins.

June 8th, 2020: This piece was intended to be timeless. Those reading it now understand that we are still in a pandemic where volunteer opportunities are more limited. But, the opportunities to do some research are decidedly not! 

Maybe you’ve finished your freshman year now, or maybe you’re a rising freshman and thrilled to be done with middle school. For that matter, maybe you’re past your freshman year and looking towards graduation – no matter, this could still be helpful to you.

Find a place to volunteer your time. Do it now. Do it with a sense of earnest passion, curiosity, and dedication. Do it now. Think about something that you love or something that you feel strongly about. Do it now. Take time to get to know an organization really well. Learn about their mission, find out what they need, advocate for that cause. Do it now.

I have been working in the non-profit world for over 20 years and I’ve worked intensely with volunteers for much of that time. They are truly a blessing. Charitable organizations run very lean and there is no way that they can accomplish their mission without volunteers. Not just in lending a hand here and there, but literally making the organization function and run well. Personally, I have always had a soft spot for my younger volunteers because their passion is visible, it’s genuine, it’s contagious, and it makes a huge impact.

But now I have to be honest. Sometimes younger volunteers create more problems than they solve. They come in a panic, usually junior year of high school, desperate to fill a gap in their volunteer experience. Whether they need it for honor society, graduation, or to embellish a college application, they come desperate for ANY service hours they can get. Worse yet, their parents come begging for hours on behalf of their child. Parents, I beg you not to negotiate service hours or volunteer opportunities on behalf of your child. Young adults, I beg you not to wait until the last minute to fill up hours to fill up your form. I can almost guarantee you that the non-profit staff you’re reaching out to is overworked and underpaid. Asking them to create an opportunity for you puts a strain on their already overburdened system. But, you might get lucky and they might have something for you. Now I have to ask you to please do what they need done whether it’s something that you want to do or not. If you wait until the last minute, you lose the luxury of choice. Worse yet, you turn an opportunity to make an impact into nothing more than a chore. That isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

That’s why I’m suggesting that you start now, with freshman year either in your headlights or in your rearview mirror. I suggest you start by making a simple choice: do you want to do something that aligns with your passion or do you want to get involved with something completely different? For example, let’s say that you want to study something in veterinary science in college or plan to become a vet tech after high school. Would you like to get involved with an animal-related organization and immerse yourself in learning more about that field? Or, would you like to take a bit of a break from it and volunteer with a hunger-related non-profit to expand your horizons? Maybe you’re thinking about a career as a firefighter or EMT and you want to spend time volunteering with your local fire company. But in addition, you want to give time to Special Olympics because you love sports. Both are valuable, both will make an impact, both will provide the service hours you need, and both will reflect very well on your college or job applications.

Once you’ve decided that, start doing some research into organizations that are looking for volunteers in your area. Be mindful of how you will get there, if the hours they need match with your schedule, what the work will entail, and if it’s something you see yourself doing with commitment. Most non-profit websites have good information on what it takes to volunteer and how to get started. But don’t be shy about sending an e-mail or (even better) making a call to get your questions answered.

If you get involved with an organization and realize that it’s not your jam, IT IS OK! Just honor any commitments that you’ve already made. Then, let the organization know that you can’t continue to volunteer. Believe me, they will appreciate your honesty and your willingness to see whatever commitment you made through to its end.

When you get involved with an organization and you love it, see if you can find opportunities to help in creative ways. I remember the long list of “when I get time” projects that I always had. That list included things like: a short introductory video, a website overhaul, infographics, updated photos, an organizational timeline, help with event planning, social media planning, better volunteer information, and lots and lots and lots of other projects. These are fantastic opportunities to not only help the organization but to build your own portfolio. Just be sure to understand the expectations and the timeline so that everyone can be successful.

Getting involved with one or more organizations early has a long list of benefits, including:

  • All of your service hours will be done…early.
  • There will be more options for doing service hours and you’ll be able to do something that you truly enjoy.
  • You will have given your time when you have more time. Anyone who has been or raised a high school junior knows I speak the truth.
  • If we are ever in a situation like…oh I don’t know…a pandemic, you won’t have to panic about losing several months of volunteer opportunities.
  • It’s possible that this will help guide you towards a major or a career
  • When your dedication endears you to the leadership of that non-profit, they will do backflips to help you with college or job recommendation letters.
  • The time you’ve given may give you the opportunity to become a true advocate for a cause and that helps everyone.
  • You might work your way into a leadership position with one or more non-profits and that will benefit you as well as the cause.
  • Projects that you’ve done will give you invaluable experience that you likely wouldn’t get elsewhere.
  • You’ll know that instead of simply checking a requirement box, you will have made a real impact.

And most importantly…

  • From this point forward, you will have developed a habit of giving back and the world really needs that right now and forever. This is not a small thing.

So find a place to give your time and your passion – do it now!