During a family vacation to a rainforest in Mexico, 12-year-old Noah Raven was awed by the sight of thousands of Monarch butterflies. However, after learning that the butterflies were near extinction, his feelings shifted to worry and concern.
Noah’s concerns about butterflies motivated him to create Monarch Defenders, an organization that advocates for the monarch butterfly by raising awareness about issues impacting the species, such as deforestation, pesticides, pollution and climate change.
Natalie Silverstein, author of Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference and host of the Simple Acts Big Impact podcast, recently interviewed Noah about his butterfly experience and how he became an agent for change. “He was feeling sad and hopeless in the face of a huge problem,” she says of Noah, “but he turned his despair into optimism by launching something really concrete and actionable.”
On his website, Noah encourages others to take small, actionable steps — for example, planting a monarch habitat in your yard, as he did. “If everyone planted a small monarch butterfly habitat, we could save the monarch butterfly!” Noah says.
Tell Your Kids To Go Outside
By now, most of us know that mental health disorders are among the most common illnesses experienced by teens. One antidote to that, or at least a coping strategy, might be to get our kids outside.
Nature magazine released a groundbreaking study in June 2019 finding that at least 120 minutes a week spent in nature is associated with good health and well-being.
Time outdoors can enhance mood, improve focus and attention, boost creativity, decrease feelings of irritability and anger and lower physical markers of stress including blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.
“Something meaningful always happens that you don’t expect outdoors, whether it’s falling in a stream or spotting a hawk.” ~ Shannon Brescher Shea
Benefits of Volunteering: Finding Purpose and Belonging
When we practice altruism, our brain releases mood-boosting endorphins and produces the soothing hormone oxytocin. The result? Positive health changes including less stress, anxiety, and depression. Now enhance that experience by combining it with time spent in nature.
Shannon Brescher Shea, author of Growing Sustainable Together: Practical Resources for Raising Kind, Engaged, Resilient Children, says that environmental volunteering not only helps teens “feel calmer and restores their attention,” but also “establishes a sense of place for youth, especially if it’s in their neighborhood.”
That sense of place, she adds, “can provide grounding and reliability during difficult times. In general, volunteering connects them to friends, family, and the community, which are all important for maintaining mental health.”
Silverstein concludes that volunteering, “gives teens a sense of purpose and allows them to flex their empathy muscles. Ultimately, it encourages them to grow into grateful, grounded, kind adults who care about others and the larger world.”
Prioritize Passion Projects
Choosing volunteer activities may be overwhelming for teens. To remedy that, have them search for projects they’re passionate about and activities they will actually enjoy. It may be helpful for teens to consider these priorities:
- Project focus.
- Organization’s mission.
- Time commitment.
- Age-range guidelines.
- Activity focus and tasks.
Project focus. Ask your teen to brainstorm types of volunteer service activities they are interested in doing. Silverstein recommends teens go through a self-assessment as they start to think about volunteering. For example, how would your teen describe their talents and abilities? How do they approach new people and situations? Answers to those questions may help your teen choose a project that fits them best.
Organization’s mission. Encourage your teen to research the group’s history, goals and mission, leadership, and how it is funded. Check their website, search online for press coverage, and visit sites like CharityWatch, CharityNavigator, and GreatNonprofits.org.
Location. Search for projects that are close to home and convenient.
Time commitment. How much time is your teen willing and able to commit? It could be once a week, once a month, or several times throughout the year. Have them start slow, and gradually increase their involvement if the project is working out well. They could also choose to volunteer with different organizations each time to vary their exposure.
Age-range guidelines. Be sure your teen meets the organization’s age requirements for volunteers. Some projects may require an adult to accompany them.
Activity focus and tasks. Before your child heads out the door, have them find out exactly what they will be doing. Will heavy lifting be involved? Will the project involve a mundane, repetitive task that will annoy them? Make sure they know what they’re getting themselves into.
What Help Does Your Own Community Need?
It’s important to look for opportunities where your kids will feel safe and comfortable about the work they’re doing, the people they’re with, and their surroundings. So, a great place to start is by looking for ways to help the environment in a place and with people your kids already know.
Shannon Brescher Shea suggests that teens base their volunteering decisions on the needs of their community. “If you want to volunteer, see if there’s already a group out there doing what you are interested in … You can multiply the impact of your effort by working together.”
Shea also suggests finding volunteering ideas that allow your teen to connect with their peers because teens are more likely to be excited about volunteering if they are with friends. Shea explains that “shared experiences outdoors — with their unpredictability and team-building aspects — can cement friendships.”
But how do you find places that need help? Your teen can:
- Ask friends, neighbors and teachers for recommendations of places to volunteer.
- Contact your city’s sustainability or environmental director.
- Ask their school for guidance and contacts.
- Search for environmental organizations in your area.
- Check local, regional, and national community service websites like Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteer Match, Create the Good, and JustServe.
Volunteer Ideas for Nature-Related Projects
Tweens and teens can join an existing organization or project, work with an organization to organize a local fundraiser involving an outdoor activity they enjoy (hiking, running, walking, swimming, etc.), or they might even start their own outdoor volunteering campaign (for example, to plant trees in their community, or initiate a composting program in their school, apartment building, or neighborhood. Here are more ways to volunteer:
Keep the environment garbage-free by participating in a cleanup at a beach, lake, river, playground, or other location that needs attention. Find cleanup events by contacting your city or county’s sustainability or environmental director, or by searching online for volunteer clean-up groups like Ocean Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, and VolunteerCleanup.org.
Local community gardens increase the amount of green space, build positive community interaction, and often provide fresh produce to those in need. Teens may enjoy planting seeds, weeding, watering, picking fruits and vegetables, and doing other gardening chores.
Work with Animals
Caring for animals can teach your kids responsibility, build their empathy, provide them with companionship, boost their self-esteem, and help them relax. There are many ways to help animals outdoors. Your teen might try volunteering at a nature center, zoo, horse ranch, or animal shelter. Many animal shelters, for example, need volunteers to walk and pet dogs.
Tree or Flower Planting
A lovely way to beautify the community and reduce impacts of climate change is to volunteer to plant trees, flowers, or other vegetation. Many towns host planting events and have goals to plant a certain number of trees annually. Your teen can check out Tree City USA online for information about increasing tree coverage in your area.
Local, State, and National Parks
Parks departments often need help with projects like trail maintenance, cleanups, planting trees, removing invasive plant species, volunteering with animals, and more. Encourage your teen to go to the park to enjoy it and to find out what kind of volunteer help they might need.
Teens can contact local farmers to see whether they need help with activities like weeding, planting seeds, sifting compost, digging, or watering. They can also organize a gleaning project, which involves picking leftover crops after they have been commercially harvested and donating the leftover produce locally.
When teens volunteer to collect scientific data, they gain science experience while directly aiding the scientific community. They can, for example, count certain species through a tracking app or volunteer with an organization, university, or government program looking for citizen help. Your child can search online for citizen science projects, for example at CitizenScience.gov, SciStarter, and Zooniverse.
Takeaway: When you encourage your teens to pursue nature-based volunteer projects they are passionate about, you’re providing a way for them to feel happier and calmer as they make a difference and connect with others in their community.