Teens Make a Difference as Volunteers
Teen volunteers saved summer at my library. With their help, I was able to put on large-scale messy shaving cream painting projects, sign up more families for summer reading, prepare construction vehicle felt pieces for future storytimes, gather ideas for tween programs, and so much more. Teen volunteers lend their time and abilities to the library, making our libraries and the communities we serve all the better for it.
When potential volunteers come calling I am always grateful for their interest, but I am also cautious. Even before teens submit paperwork, I generally ask a few questions to get a sense of their expectations and where their interest is coming from. I’m not looking for word-perfect answers — many teens have had little to no job interview experience and I wouldn’t expect that of them. I also don’t expect teens to be super polished or experts in etiquette — different people come from different backgrounds and it takes time to learn what comes with entering a workplace environment.
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What I’m looking for from these initial conversations are simply signs that the teen has some personal inclination to be at the library and a reasonable idea of what they’ll be doing here. In short, I want to make sure they’re set up for success. Because even though volunteering isn’t a paying gig, it can be the first step towards a first job. In fact, youth service librarians are experts at helping equip teens with various skills, making the library a great training ground for future employment.
So, if you know a teen interested in earning community service hours at their local library, I encourage you to share the following advice.
- Be prepared to speak for yourself. When parents or other grown-ups call on behalf of their teens, I feel like I’m only getting half the story. While sometimes it’s necessary to provide context, I’d still like to talk directly with the person who will be doing the volunteering. After all, you’re the ones we’ll be interacting with on a regular basis and asking for help with everything from wiping down tables to testing out future teen activities. On a very basic level, hearing from you personally allows us to see if you are being dragged into something against your will or showing up of your own volition.
- Think of a reason you picked the library… other than community service. We know that many schools, churches, and honor societies require teens to earn hours through volunteer work. If that’s the primary reason you’re applying, great. If the library is convenient to where you live, that’s fine too. But one way to make a positive first impression and get some practice answering this question on future applications for college, jobs, etc. is to put some thought into one more reason why you selected the library out of all the possible places to volunteer. Have you ever used the library in some way? Tell us. Are you curious what the library does for teens because you don’t know? Share that. Like working with kids? We’d love to hear more. The answer can be short and sweet, just aim for something specific and genuine.
- Set a realistic timeline. How many community service hours do you need to earn and when is your due date? If the answer is “40 hours by next week,” chances are it’ll be difficult to accommodate. Many teens don’t realize that creating volunteer projects takes work. Not only because of the time required to gather materials, create instructions, and supervise, but also because most librarians want to engage their volunteers with a variety of work, including some more meaningful projects. While a few menial tasks can’t be avoided, I try to tailor projects towards teens’ interests and skills. If teens are artistically inclined, I love their help creating displays and making felt props. If they want to work with kids, I’m happy to get them involved in programs.
Some libraries have ongoing volunteer opportunities that are more consistent and time-intensive like Teen Advisory Boards and Homework Helpers, but these also usually require some level of longer-term commitment (i.e., must attend a certain number of meetings, volunteer two hours weekly over six months, etc.) For general volunteers, I typically ask teens to schedule between an hour or two hours at a time. This keeps it manageable for me and avoids burnout for them. Of course, we can try and be flexible if it’s down to the wire and you only need a few more hours to get to the finish line, but planning in advance on your part (i.e., 40 hours over the course of a semester) honestly makes everyone’s lives a little easier.
Volunteering at its best is mutually beneficial to both the library and the volunteers. In exchange for the support and ideas I get from teens, I hope they’ve also gained something from their time spent here — whether that’s a sense of impact, a new skill set, or a letter of reference or referral. By empowering our volunteers we’re investing in their future as well as our own since the teens of today are the library stakeholders (and in some cases librarians!) of tomorrow.