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Most high schools require some time of community service element before allowing seniors to graduate. This community service gives teenagers the opportunity to reach out to others and learn more about their community before embarking on adulthood. Recent research has shown that getting teenagers involved may have a greater impact than once believed. Service-learning goes beyond just basic volunteer work and has a positive lifelong impact.

Volunteer Work versus Service-Learning

Volunteer opportunities and service projects are different from service-learning. Service-learning goes beyond one-time volunteering and combines the service with self-reflection, discovery and acquisition of content knowledge, values and skills. For example, collecting non-perishable food items as part of a canned food drive during the holidays is a service project. Helping to prepare and serve the food, analyzing the dietary needs of adults and studying the impact of the homeless on communities is service-learning.

Benefits for Both Youth and Organizations

By combing service with learning, both youth and organizations benefit. Teenagers get the opportunity to look beyond themselves, apply what they are learning in school in real-life situations and can explore career options. Combining service with practical applications and in-depth learning has a greater lifelong impact on youth.

Organizations benefit because youth become more engaged and willing to volunteer on a regular basis. Youth who engage in service-learning are more likely to seek out opportunities to begin new projects and may reach out to others to get them to join in the service.

Getting Started

First, look at the community and identify a need. Children and teens can join forces with a non-profit organization that is already in place or may see a community need and develop their own idea for a service project. Teachers and education administrators may look for opportunities in the community that link to what children and teens are doing at school. For example, children who are learning about erosion may benefit by helping repair a local dam.

Likewise, organization leaders can reach out to schools and explain an ongoing service need or volunteer project that their organization has. They can then work with teachers to develop educational opportunities, such as research projects or science experiments, that will help them enhance their knowledge of the subject before completing the service.