Never too Early to Volunteer

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will continue to profile some of these volunteers, along with the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, which is part of the Division of State Service Centers under the Department of Health and Social Services. We hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents.  For information about volunteering opportunities throughout the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

High schoolers find time to help others, and reap the rewards

Volunteers aren’t looking for recognition when they immerse themselves in their not-for-pay passions, but an occasional pat on the back can make the effort feel much more rewarding.

That’s one of the reasons Delaware offers a Volunteer Service Credit, which counts toward meeting requirements for high school graduation, and why the governor each year sponsors the Governor’s Youth Volunteer Service Awards for outstanding demonstrations of community service.

Elizabeth Habash, now a freshman biology major at the University of Delaware, received one of those awards two years ago, when she was a junior at the Charter School of Wilmington.

She was part of a local Odyssey of the Mind team, participating in the international program that focuses on creative problem solving. Her team was sponsored by Barrel of Makers, the Wilmington-based collaborative that blends technology and the arts as its members work on both individual and community-service projects.

That connection helped foster a powerful synergy. Habash and her team wanted to find a way to incorporate young people with disabilities into their efforts, and Barrel of Makers members were working with devices they called “drawbots,” an instrument controlled by a joystick that enables those who can’t hold a pen or a brush to draw or paint.

Barrel of Makers had tested the devices, and received favorable feedback, at maker fairs and at programs that serve kids with disabilities, says Jessi Taylor, the group’s president. But the initiative took off when Habash and her Odyssey of the Mind team got involved.

“They raised the money to build eight of them, then they built the drawbots, and they also learned how to fix them on the fly, because they take a lot of abuse when they’re being used,” Taylor says. “She really helped our program have a bigger impact.”

The impact was significant enough that the project received a first-place award from Odyssey Angels, an Odyssey of the Mind offshoot that recognizes innovative community service programs. 

Doing more than required

The drawbot, an instrument controlled by a joystick that enables those who can’t hold a pen or a brush to draw or paint. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Habash

Volunteering, Habash says, can be difficult for teens to fit into their schedules, especially when they’re applying for and preparing to enter college. “Too often, we say, why volunteer when I can have a job and make money, or play a sport,” she says. “But when you get involved and realize that you like volunteering, you’ll do much more than is required.”

Habash had a similar experience while volunteering at the Compassionate Care hospice program at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, where she would bake and serve treats to terminally ill residents. One of the patients, a man named Paul, made a strong impression on her. As a form of therapy, he drew many pictures, and loved to show them off. Working with other volunteers, Habash says, “we scanned images of all his work, and created two albums—one for his family and the other to keep at the hospice.”

That combination of service projects was what former Gov. Jack Markell cited when Habash received the 2016 Governor’s Youth Volunteer Service Award in the human needs category. (Nominations for the 2018 awards are being accepted through April 13. Winners will be honored at a ceremony on May 24. The nomination form and other details are available at volunteerdelaware.org.)

While Habash’s story may be exceptional, there are plenty of opportunities available for youthful volunteers throughout Delaware.

Taylor herself started volunteering in high school, helping kids with arts and crafts projects at the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn and preschoolers at New Castle County’s Safety Town summer program. She says she enjoyed it so much that she wrote an essay on the value of volunteering during her senior year of high school—and won a small college scholarship for her effort.

Now Taylor is working at the county’s Route 9 Innovation Center, and she says the county is looking for youth volunteers. Teens with good computer and communications skills can be helpful showing adults how to use the libraries’ computers and their software programs. The county, in conjunction with the Office of Volunteerism, will be holding a Teen Volunteer Fair on Monday, April 16, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Appoquinimink Library in Middletown.

Kevin Smith, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in New Castle County, can testify to the value of youth volunteers in his organization.

Renewing generations

“It’s very important for us as a feeder pattern,” he says. “We go from youth, to college age, to young adult and up the ranks. We’ve even got volunteers in their 80s. It’s important for us to keep renewing the generations.” The Habitat organizations in Kent and Sussex counties also welcome youth volunteers, he says.

Young Habitat volunteers find the work rewarding because they can see the fruits of their labors, Smith says. Volunteers age 16 and up can work on Habitat’s construction projects, doing framing, installing insulation, painting and finish work, landscaping and sometimes even demolition.

Volunteers who are 14 or 15 years old can help at Habitat’s ReStore sites, shops that sell gently used furniture, appliances and building materials, Smith says.

Lilly Appiah, an 18-year-old Middletown High School senior, volunteered for Habitat from September through January, first at a construction site and then at the ReStore in Middletown. Earlier work building sidewalks with a local youth group gave her an interest in construction and her work at the ReStore helped her develop communications and customer service skills that will come in handy if she follows through with her plan to become a pharmacist.

At the ReStore, she says, she greeted customers, helped them find the furniture they needed and carried items to their cars. “I like to see people smile when you help them out,” she says. “It feels good to help people in need.”

Another popular destination for high school and college volunteers is Special Olympics Delaware.

The 2016 Governor’s Youth Volunteer Service Awards. Photo courtesy of Volunteer Delaware

Volunteers can work directly with athletes who have special needs, either as coaches or as partners on “unified teams,” whose members have some players with special needs and some without, says Jon Buzby, the organization’s director of media relations.

“They practice together, compete together, and become friends together,” he says.

“We hope the friendship extends beyond the initial experience,” Buzby says, so that volunteer partners will continue to support people with special needs as they continue their lives and advance their careers.

About 200 teenagers are now volunteering with Special Olympics Delaware, Buzby says, and that does not include participants in school-based programs that conduct fundraising and provide support for various Special Olympics activities.

At both Habitat for Humanity and Special Olympics, youth volunteers don’t need any special experience before getting started. Call the agency or visit its website to sign up. Training —whether it’s how to swing a hammer or how to teach a kid to swing a baseball bat—will be provided, Smith and Buzby say.

Young volunteers should check the website volunteerdelaware.org this month for special opportunities associated with Global Youth Service Weekend, which this year is April 20-22. The weekend encourages youth ages 5-25 to develop 21st-century skills by helping to solve real community problems.

The website also includes information on the Governor’s Youth Service Awards and the Volunteer Service Credit.

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