You want to help. You just don’t know how.
Or maybe you’re faced with filling community service hours required by your school or organization – but it sounds so boring, because you haven’t found something you care about.
Here’s help. But first, here’s why you should care.
“I don’t think it’s important, I think it’s crucial, because in being of service to others, we understand the interconnectedness of all human beings and all creation,” said the Rev. Burl Salmon, a seventh-grade teacher and the middle school chaplain at Trinity Episcopal.
Youth also find that helping others often helps themselves.
“It’s more than community service, it’s trying to build local, national and global leaders,” said Sally Daley, CEO of the Charlotte-area Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council.
Dana Carpenter, operations director for the seven area sites of the Boys & Girls Club, said serving others helps young people learn important life skills and become more engaged citizens.
“It’s very empowering to kids to know they can be a positive force and they can accomplish goals,” she said.
So how do you start, if you haven’t – or get better, if you have? Here are experts’ tips.
Find a passion and a problem
Coming up with an idea for a service project can seem overwhelming. Experts recommend starting with a personal passion, then asking questions.
“Ask, ‘What’s going on? What are the issues in my community?’” said Melanie Miller, vice president of membership services for the Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council. She works with Girls Scouts who are earning their Gold Award, the highest Girl Scouts honor, which generally takes at least 80 hours to complete.
Miller recommended community-mapping your own area, which looks precisely at the locations of groups, stores and neighborhoods to get a stronger sense of the community and where it might have needs. “It makes them sit and think about what’s truly surrounding them in their community,” she said of the Girl Scout practice. “A lot of times they don’t like it, but it does help.”
Miller said sometimes people know what topic interests them – children, animals and the military are the most popular she sees – but don’t know where to start. “It makes it easier to pinpoint a project by contacting groups of people associated with that topic.”
If you look hard enough, Charlotte offers hundreds of service options, said Julie Rizzo, the Levine Jewish Community Center’s director of development and social action.
“It’s not necessarily ‘work,’ but if people took the time to spend 15 to 20 minutes on this wonderful thing we have called the Internet, they could find those opportunities, because they are there,” she said.
To get pointed in the right direction, Salmon suggested contacting groups such as the United Way or a faith community such as a church or synagogue for ideas.
“Where needs you?” he asked. “You have a gift where you can use the gifts you’ve been given for the best outcome.”
Pick something appropriate
It’s OK to start small, Carpenter said.
She recommended looking around at the people you’re in contact with every day – helping younger kids with homework or, at the Boys & Girls Club, assisting the staff with different tasks as a “junior staff” member.
“They need to start where they are. As they get older, they can branch out,” she said.
Salmon, who often plans off-campus service trips for middle school students, said it’s important to keep limitations in mind and choose projects that are age-appropriate.
“Don’t do something that would be so overwhelming for a sixth-grader, like a drug and alcohol rehabilitiation center. That’s pretty heavy for a sixth-grader. But it is more development-appropriate the older you go,” he said.
Rizzo said she often gets calls about service opportunities for younger children, and that many organizations’ age restrictions can be limiting. One fun option for youngsters, she said, is gleaning at a local farm.
For vs. with
Miller said doing projects for the community are great, but going deeper and working with the community to make a difference has more impact.
An example: You could donate cans to a food pantry for the community. Or you could do something that addresses why people are hungry or why there isn’t enough food on the table to work with a neighborhood – like building a community garden.
Salmon said forming a positive relationship with the people you’re serving creates a better experience than being detached.
“Doing service without a relationship is resisting an investment,” he said. “To be in service is giving of yourself, and part of oneself is one’s emotional involvement.”
Successful projects should start with forethought, experts said.
Miller recommends several steps to get organized with a service project:
• Make a budget for time, money and other resources.
• Outline an action plan.
• Create a time line.
• Build a team.
She said communication is key.
“If you’re holding an event, don’t wait till the week before and say, ‘Oh gosh, I need 25 people this weekend.’”
Carpenter said Boys & Girls Club members learn how to run meetings and set schedules for projects.
“The planning process is something they’ll be able to take with them their entire life,” she said.
If you have to present or pitch your project to an adult for help, you’re more likely to get that help if you offer organized information.
For example, one of the highlighted Young Achievers on this page, Morgan Tsui, got her principal’s support and approval for a project by showing her a PowerPoint. Her presentation showed a problem, how to fix it, why it was important and the benefits of doing the project.
Find a mentor
Having an adult in your corner can make the project run a lot more smoothly, and the guidance can make your work even better.
The Girl Scouts believe so much in mentorship that scouts earning their Gold Award have two mentors: one from Girl Scouts and one in the field of their project.
Daley said adult mentorship is a key to success in service projects as well as in other aspects of life.
“It’s best to talk to someone at the beginning, so they understand your project and what kind of help you need, instead of a last-minute, frantic plea in the middle of a project,” she said.
One of the Young Achievers here, Foster Kinlin, said a teacher helped him and his brother launch their project and have a greater impact. “If you’re trying to do something at your school, it’s very helpful to have an adviser-type of figure help with the logistical stuff.”
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