Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that, while we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. An important learning opportunity for students exists outside of the classroom, an experience that some experts say teaches both lessons that are essential for a happy life and skills necessary for a successful living—the experience of community volunteering.
Jenny Friedman, the executive director of Doing Good Together (www.doinggoodtogether.com) works every day to inspire, encourage and equip families to volunteer together. “There are enormous benefits for kids and parents who get involved in community service,” Friedman explains. “In addition to the good that it does in the community, volunteerism can build both academic skills and self esteem in young people. Ultimately, it tells our youth that they matter and can make a difference in the world around them.”
“Research shows when teens volunteer, they are two-to-three times more likely to continue to do so as adults,” Friedman continues. “When you start involving kids and teens in service, you grow a whole new generation of generous, philanthropic adults.”
If you are wondering just how much of a difference a young person can really make, meet three local students who have made volunteerism a part of their extracurricular education and hear the lessons they have learned and how they have made an impact in their communities.
Adam, Volunteer in the Arts
Adam Jester, a junior at Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School in Oklahoma City, has volunteered at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (OKCMoA) for the past three summers, assisting artists and teaching art to younger kids. He has also served on the Arts Council of Oklahoma City’s Teen Advisory Council. “My sister volunteered at the museum and it sounded like a great opportunity to help the art community,” Jester explains. “I really enjoyed volunteering because it let me be more involved in the art world and help others become interested in art.”
Drawn to the museum by his interest in art and his own artistic abilities, Jester says that his experience has allowed him to meet a wide variety of people—and has given him an appreciation into the patience needed to help teach children. “I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a good person, in the sense of fulfilling expectations, and how important that is,” Jester reflects. “ I feel like this will help me very much in life.”
“Volunteerism is empowering,” Friedman agrees. “It helps young people learn early on that small actions can make a big difference in the world. If they feel that way as a young person, imagine how they will feel as an adult when they become even more capable of helping out.”
Friedman adds that volunteers like Jester also benefit from improved social, organizational and teamwork skills, as well as improved senses of self-worth, responsibility, competence and achievement. “The lessons I’ve learned through volunteering really emphasize the importance of being an honest, forthright person,” Jester adds. “That’s something that’s definitely helped me out not only in my school work, but with life in general.”
Mason, Healthy Eating Advocate
8th Grader Mason Carter Harvey’s community involvement stemmed from his desire to take charge of his own health. As an overweight 6th grader in Guthrie, Mason was struggling with health issues and bullying stemming from his size. “I was tired of being bullied, tired of being unable to breathe right and tired of the feeling of being overweight and getting picked on for it. ” Harvey says. “I decided it was up to me to change and fix it.”
The 13 year old has adopted a new mantra that helped drive his personal changes and influences his community involvement: Small Steps + Smart Choices = BIG CHANGES. “I put down the Xbox and cut back on the pop, chips, and candy,” Mason explains. “I started getting more active and making smarter choices” Mason successfully lost 85 pounds, going from 206 pounds in 6th grade to his current healthy weight of 120 pounds.
Now, Mason is an advocate for healthy eating and believes that childhood obesity can be defeated by encouraging small changes and smart decisions in kids of all ages. Through his Strive for 85 project (www.strivefor85.com), Mason’s work in the community has included encouraging 85 important or famous people to spread his story of healthy living (including First Lady Michelle Obama and former NBA player Desmond Mason), plans to host or attend 85 events that will help promote awareness about childhood obesity (he’s currently at 68) and to help 85 kids facing the same challenges that he overcame.
Friedman says a positive side effect of volunteering is that it often helps make families stronger by encouraging them to talk about things they wouldn’t normally discuss and unifying them through shared support of a cause. “My family never saw me as fat. When I told them I wanted to lose weight, then they started to see the problem,” Mason reflects. “Once they knew I was serious about this they started changing the way they did things, too. Now they are behind me 100%, every step of the way.”
Hannah, Student Helping Student
12-year-old Hannah Reynolds of Midwest City volunteered inside her school, spending more than 200 hours helping a classmate with special needs. “I helped him complete his work, read instructions to him and explained things he didn’t understand,” Reynolds explained. “After working with him, I wanted to show people that he is just like me even though he is disabled. I used to think that people with disabilities were different, but he showed me that he can do the same things
“Volunteerism helps break down stereotypes and teaches empathy and tolerance,” Friedman explains. “Typically, we tend to hang out with people that are similar to us in things like race, religion and socioeconomic status. Volunteering is one of the few ways to break out of that circle and realize that we have more in common with other people than we thought.”
For her work and dedication, Reynolds was chosen from more than 35,000 nominees nationwide to receive a $1,000 college scholarship through the Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program. “Kohl’s is thrilled to recognize the young volunteers like Hannah who have dedicated their time and energy to bettering the communities in which we live,” said Julie Gardner, Kohl’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “Every effort, large or small, makes a difference.”
But the award and scholarship weren’t the highlight of the experience for Hannah. “The best part of my volunteer work was making a new friend,” Reynolds says.
Friedman adds one additional benefit of volunteerism. “Many parents are concerned about messages communicated to their children in our culture that portray selfishness, competitiveness and materialism” she says. “Community service is a way to provide alternative messages to children about what really matters, and the importance of care, compassion, gratitude and empathy. Volunteering is not just telling them that those things are important—but actually doing them, living them in a hands-on way.”
For families interested in giving back, but overwhelmed at the idea, Friedman encourages seeking out small ways to get involved in a cause that is important or meaningful. “You don’t have to start your own non-profit or volunteer 40 hours each week,” she adds. “Just do what you can. It’s valuable to do anything to lend a hand and it teaches great lessons to kids of all ages.”
Looking for volunteer opportunities?
- Find information about local nonprofits seeking volunteers and how your family can get involved at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/volunteering-opportunities.
- Find 50 free and low-cost service projects that families can do together at www.bigheartedfamilies.org.
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor and Online Content Manager at MetroFamily Magazine.