Community service can strengthen your sense of belonging to a community, and increase your confidence and self-esteem

“Volunteer? Like I don’t have enough to do! What with all my studies and homework, a parttime job, chores around the house–what’s this talk about community service? There would have to be a pretty impressive payoff for me to get involved.”

Well, there is a payoff–and it’s a biggie! Research has shown that community service is as beneficial to those who volunteer as it is to those who receive help.

The Self-Esteem Connection

When high school student Stephanie Evatt volunteered a bit of time at a community service project, writing messages on placemats for San Diego AIDS patients who had their meals delivered, she didn’t expect any reward. But she got one. A recipient of one of her placemats took the time to contact the service agency and have a letter of appreciation forwarded to Stephanie, thanking her for caring. “Things like that make you want to be in service,” says Stephanie.

Stephanie is one of two youths on the board of directors of the Youth Volunteer Corps of America (YVC), a nonprofit national network that promotes volunteerism among young people. The first project in which Stephanie participated was a graffiti paint-out in one of the poorer areas of San Diego. A group of volunteers painted a neutral color over gang colors and symbols on private property. “An old lady came out of her house. She was standing on her porch and crying and thanking us for what we were doing. And that really turned me on to service work–because it is so rewarding to have someone actually notice that you are doing something to help out.”

Youth-Volunteer-Corps-of-America

It’s difficult to feel bad about yourself when you’re receiving that kind of recognition. Young people who continue doing community service do so not only because their efforts may help a worthy cause, but because it just feels good. So says a recent survey on community service commissioned by Prudential Insurance Company of America. The number-one reason for volunteering cited by the teenage respondents was that it made them feel good. Eighty-nine percent said so! There were a lot of other reasons, too:

* Eighty-seven percent thought it would help them in the college admissions process.

* Learning new skills they couldn’t learn elsewhere was a reason cited by 81 percent.

* Seventy-eight percent said they volunteered because they have roots in the community.

* Seventy-five percent felt it was important to give something back to the community.

* Seventy-five percent volunteered because it was fun or they had friends who were doing it.

Friends got Stephanie started. “I had done a few small things with the Girl Scouts. But when I got into seventh grade, I was elected to student council; there were two girls there who were like my mentors. They just were people I idolized, and they were involved in volunteering. I wanted to hang out with them and do the same things they did, so I went to a service project.”

A Helper’s High

Now in 11th grade, Stephanie is still doing it. Why? Well, apparently community service can be habit-forming! Allan Luks, writer and executive director of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of New York City Inc., conducted a survey of thousands of volunteers. Almost all (95 percent) said that “helping others on a regular, face-to-face basis [gave] them an immediate good physical feeling.” Luks calls this feeling “the helper’s high.”

Case in point: T.Z Haywood from Detroit, Michigan. T.Z is addicted to community service. Over the past eight years, this 19-year-old has accumulated more than 4,000 hours of service with the Youth Volunteer Corps of America. Like Stephanie, T.Z is on the YVC board of directors.

“I’ve been volunteering with YVC since I was 11,” says T.Z. “It just became a habit. I really liked doing it. You know how you do something for so long that when you don’t do it, you just feel kind of lost? That’s how I feel when I’m not volunteering.”

Fun and Friends

Fun? Stephanie and T.Z think so–and so do many other young people who have realized the joy in community service. When T.Z joined several other young people on his first service project, painting a senior’s home, it took two weeks to finish the job. The inexperienced youths mixed the wrong paint and had to do the job several times to get it right. But it didn’t seem like work. In fact, it was so much fun that T.Z has been volunteering ever since.

Want to meet new friends? Volunteering is a great way to broaden your social circle. Social support affects health and quality of life. How can you feel lonely when you’re active in your community–dishing out at a soup kitchen or helping someone learn to read?

T.Z says, “Do it because it’s fun. It’s the coolest way to meet people. All my friends have come from volunteering. This is the tightest-knit group of people in the world to me. There are so many unique people out there, and you would probably never meet them if you didn’t take the chance to go out there and do something.”

So think community service: It’s good for the community–and for your own sense of self-worth.

RELATED ARTICLE: Where to Lend a Hand

Here are just a few organizations through which you might consider volunteering. Most have chapters near you.

Habitat for Humanity 121 Habitat Street Americus, GA 31709 1-800-HABITAT Web site: www.habitat.org

Make a Wish Foundation 100 West Clarendon, Suite 2200 Phoenix, AZ 85013 1-888-742-WISH Web site: www.wishes.org

American Red Cross 8111 Gatehouse Road Falls Church, VA 22042 1-800-HELPNOW Web site: www.redcross.org

Muscular Dystrophy Association 3300 East Sunrise Drive Tucson, AZ 89718 1-800-572-1717 Web site: www.mdausa.org

Special Olympics International 1325 G Street NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20005 1-800-700-8585 Web site: www.specialolympics.org

For additional volunteer opportunities, ask your school counselor, clergy, or contact local hospitals and shelters.

Abstract: 

Teenagers may think they are too busy to do volunteer work in their communities, but the rewards make it worth their effort. They see how a service project brings people together to make a community better. They realize that they are responsible for improving others’ surroundings.