You've seen news reports about people who need assistance
after a natural disaster or animals in need. Maybe you've
walked past people who are living on the streets. Or perhaps
you've watched TV programs about how lonely and isolated older
people can get.
So what can you do about any of those things, you ask? The
answer: You can volunteer.
Volunteering gives you an opportunity to change people's lives,
including your own. If you're feeling frustrated or overwhelmed
by the news of a disaster, volunteering to help can be a great way
to cope. If you'd like to support a cause but can't afford
to donate money, you can donate your time instead.
Helping others in need is such an important part of the American
way of life that many high schools require their students to spend
a certain number of hours volunteering in order to graduate.
So how do you go about it?
Find What's Right for You
Volunteering isn't like school: Instead of having the
choices made for you about where to go and what subjects to learn,
you get to pick. You can choose what really interests you and who
(or what) is most deserving of your time.
If you like animals, help out at a local animal shelter. Most
shelters depend on volunteers to keep the cats and dogs happy and
well exercised. (And when you're walking rescued dogs, it's
not just the pooches that get a workout - you benefit too!)
If you think you may be interested in politics, volunteering to
help with a campaign is a great way to find out how things work on
the inside. Even if you're too young to vote, you can make a
difference by helping on a political campaign - whether it's
for the president of the United States or your town mayor.
If you have a friend or relative who has or had a medical problem
(like cancer, HIV, or diabetes, for example), you might be inspired
to donate your time to help an organization that raises money for
research, delivers meals, or offers other help to people with the
If you like children, there are tons of volunteering
opportunities - from being a Big Brother or Big Sister to helping
out in an after-school sports program.
You also can:
- serve food at a homeless shelter
- volunteer to spend time at a retirement community
- help out at your house of worship
- take part in a park cleanup day
The possibilities are endless!
And if you have more than one thing you love, you can combine
the two: For example, if you love kids and are great at arts and
crafts, visit your local children's hospital and offer to lead
art activities for young patients.
Find What Fits Your Schedule
After you've discovered what interests you, decide how much
time you want to spend and what fits into your schedule. Most
organizations want volunteers to commit to giving them a set amount
of time every week or two - it varies according to the
But what if school, sports, or other commitments prevent you
from devoting time every week? Many large organizations (especially
those related to the environment or finding cures for diseases)
have daylong activities that you can take part in once in a while.
These include walkathons, bike rides, cleanup days, or building
homes for those in need. Not only are these great ways to help, you
can also get some exercise.
Expand Your Mind
Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills - from working
as part of a team to setting and reaching goals. It gives you a
chance to discover what kinds of things you're best at and
enjoy the most. A volunteer job that you love can even help shape
your ideas about your career goals.
Volunteering also can provide you with a sense of responsibility
because people really depend on you. And it can help you develop a
new understanding of people who are different from you - people
with disabilities, people in financial distress, sick kids, or the
Volunteering helps people feel they make a difference - that
they do have the power to change things for the better. When people
depend on you, it can change the way you look at yourself. You can
feel proud of the goals that you've achieved for an
organization - whether it's helping to organize a 10K to raise
money for breast cancer or running the race itself.
Volunteering is also a great way to get a perspective on your
own life. Sometimes it's easy to get consumed by worries about
your grades or the fight you had with your friend or parent. And
although these things are very important in their own way,
sometimes it can be helpful to get some distance and think about
other things. Volunteering allows you to do this. It lets you focus
on others and see that your involvement in the world can be
Finally, volunteering can help save you from being bored - it
gives you a place to be where you can have a good time and keep
In addition to all the other reasons for volunteering, it can
look impressive on college or job applications. That's not the
main reason for volunteering, of course - don't do it just to
please other people or only to look good or you won't enjoy it.
But volunteering does show others (and yourself!) that you are
reliable enough to make a commitment and show up on schedule.
Volunteering also shows employers and colleges that you believe
in making the world a better place - and that you're willing to
sacrifice your time and energy to do it.
So Where Do I Sign Up?
After you've decided what you're interested in and how
much time you can devote, it's time to find out where you can
You have several choices. You can search the Internet or look in
your local phone book under "volunteer." You can call an
organization directly and ask if they need volunteers in your area.
You can ask friends or relatives for ideas and contacts or look on
bulletin boards in your library or in bookstores.
When you're calling an organization to offer your time,
it's best to ask for a volunteer coordinator. Be ready to
answer some questions they may ask, like:
- Why do you want to volunteer for our organization?
- What do you know about our organization?
- How many hours a week will you be able to volunteer?
- What are your interests?
- Do you have any special skills?
- Do you have a way to get here?
Most places will ask you to come for an interview, which is
usually pretty casual - they want to talk to you face to face and
if they haven't yet asked the questions above, they will do it
at the interview.
Whether your interview is on the phone or in person, don't
forget to ask questions of your own. Because volunteering is a
two-way street, it's a good idea to think about certain issues
ahead of time. You might want to ask:
- What will be expected of me if I volunteer here?
- What kind of training will I receive?
- How many other volunteers are there?
- How many hours do you expect me to volunteer each
If it's a good fit - meaning you like the organization, they
like you, and you like the work - volunteering can be an incredible
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.