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How to Mobilize Youth in Service

February 26, 2016

GlobeHandsAny young person can be a hero. Few embody that truism better than Hawaiian Brittany Amano, who at the age of 12 founded a nonprofit organization called the Future Isn't Hungry. But a young person shouldn't have to found an organization in order to make a difference. The good news is they don't have to.

While Brittany's entrepreneurial drive and success are unique, her passion for public service is not. According to a 2012 study by DoSomething.org, 93 percent of young people in America say they are interested in volunteering, yet only a fraction end up taking the steps needed to actually become involved. As the executive director of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, I've been privileged to meet many young people across the country who are determined to serve their communities. And along the way I’ve learned that the biggest barrier to youth participating in service is accessibility.

Based on the lessons we have learned from our three youth-oriented programs, the Jefferson Awards Foundation has established a four-step process that engages young people in service by focusing on their interests and making participation easy, fun, and accessible. The steps are:

1. Ask kids what they care about. You’d be amazed by the things young people notice — and by how deeply they think about issues that matter to them. If a kid sees a homeless veteran on the street, she's likely to wonder about the reasons behind the veteran's homelessness and how she can help. If he sees milk bottles piling up in the trash bins in his cafeteria, he's likely to wonder how he can get his school to recycle. Simply asking kids what kinds of problems they've been thinking about and their ideas to solve them can lead to an overwhelmingly constructive response that can be channeled into public service.

2. Establish a goal. Although kids tend to care about lots of issues and have no shortage of ideas about how to address them, they often need help turning those ideas into action. For caring adults in their lives, this means sitting down with them to discuss the goal of their service project. What do the homeless in their community need, and what is the young person with the idea able to provide to help meet that need? By establishing a concrete goal, kids almost always are able to figure out the steps needed to achieve that goal. If the problem is homelessness, for example, students can put together boxes of supplies to deliver to their local food bank or homeless shelter.

3. Create an actionable plan. What steps do kids need to take to reach their goal? By sitting down with a young person and walking him or her through the process of creating a plan, you are setting them up for success. And it needn't be more complicated than 1-2-3. Step one could be collecting supplies, step two putting the boxes together, and step three delivering them to a local shelter.

4. Share it! Once you have a plan in place, be sure to share it with other kids in the community. Many of them will be eager to help out, and in some cases a few of them may even want to start their own projects. Encourage kids to share their plans of action across social media and to let their peers know about donation drives, box-packing events, and the like. Take it from me, many will want to contribute once they've been pointed in the right direction.

The model outlined above powers public service not only because it touches young lives through concrete action, but because it makes service accessible and easy to understand. The results can be astounding.

In 2015, Brittany Amano was one of three winners of the Jefferson Awards Foundation's LEAD360 program, which uses this model as a way to encourage public service in young people. Last year alone, Brittany's nonprofit was responsible for the donation of more than 308,000 bags of food across the country — a $4.6 million value — impacting some 770,000 food-insecure Americans.

Headshot_hillary_schaeferImagine the possibilities if more kids participated in service projects, whether as founders of their own organizations or simply as volunteers. All a kid needs to make a difference is the knowledge that he or she can.

Hillary Schaefer is executive director of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, which believes that engaging in social good inspires purpose — and drives lasting solutions for our communities and the nation.

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Posted by Ashley Hoober  |   March 03, 2016 at 10:44 PM

I've coached for 8 years now and one thing I agree with you on is you have to give them some say in what they do. If you set the goal, what incentive do they have to work towards it?!? The more you involve them the better.

Great post!


Posted by Megan  |   March 14, 2016 at 11:11 AM

I also think one of the biggest barriers to youth getting involved in service is the lack of time they have outside the institution of education and homework (not to mention activities they do because they are being pushed to do so to get into a "good" college, if they are of that age). Why not swap some of that often ineffective homework time for time dedicated to civil service?

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