Helping Hands

Libraries connect kids with volunteer opportunities

May 1, 2018

Abby Johnson

Volunteering has a lot of benefits for kids. It can help them learn job skills, instill in them a lifelong desire to give back to their communities, and broaden several of the assets that the nonprofit Search Institute identifies as necessary for successful youth development. Volunteering is a great way for young people to make their mark on the world, and libraries are an ideal place for them to start that journey.

At the New Albany–Floyd County (Ind.) Public Library, where I work, we have a teen volunteer program that starts at age 11. We get a high volume of requests for volunteer hours because of a service requirement at a nearby middle school. We’re one of the only games in town for these kids, many of whom are too young to volunteer at most places in our community. To meet the demand for volunteer projects—which swells as the project’s due dates approach—we started a regular program called Crafting for a Cause.

Crafting for a Cause is a two-hour drop-in program open to tweens and teens, and its format could easily be tweaked to include a wide range of ages or entire families. We’ve partnered with a local animal shelter to provide handmade pet toys, ornament Styrofoam shelters for feral cats, and decorate cookies for first responders. This has been one of our most popular programs; not only does it help our students meet their service requirements, but it brings new kids into the library.

Some opportunities target younger audiences, like the Junior Volunteers program that Youth Services Manager Dawn Wacek started at La Crosse (Wisc.) Public Library. Open to grades 3–6, the program focuses on empowering children to take care of a place they love—the library itself. When kids sign up to be Junior Volunteers, they commit to a weekly hour of service that may include different tasks around the children’s room, such as straightening materials, prepping craft supplies, or recommending books.

Giving back never goes out of style, and plenty of kids are willing to lend a hand when they know where to look.

“I am looking for children and families to feel that the library is theirs, and that this space and the people working here care about them,” says Wacek. “Whether the kids are great volunteers or terrible ones in terms of how well they clean baby toys or cut name tags, that isn’t as important to me as seeing them excited to be here and talking to us about their lives and interests.” Not only does onsite service strengthen kids’ relationships to the library, Wacek says volunteers tell their friends and family about the wonders inside.

You can also reach children and families by including a service component as part of your library’s summer or winter reading programs. Cedar Mill Community Libraries in Portland, Oregon, has done this since 2015 with its Read for Goats challenge. If area families meet the requisite number of reading hours, library staffers solicit donations to purchase two goats via the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, which are given to an overseas family in need as a means of earning income. Challenge participants have met the goal each year.

This program has led to some valuable connections for Cedar Mill Community Libraries, including partnerships with local schools—with teachers who have adjusted the program to fit their classrooms—and local service organizations, such as the Rotary Club, that have contributed funding. Kids who are not typically motivated by reading program prizes may be compelled to participate by the idea of meeting a challenge and helping others. Adding a service component to your library reading programs also opens a door to conversations about how and why we should be aware of our global community.

Giving back never goes out of style, and plenty of kids are willing to lend a hand when they know where to look. Help our young people help their communities by facilitating these service opportunities through your library.