When it comes to making a difference in the lives of young people, sometimes there’s no better mentor than another young person. That’s been the way high school senior Joyce Zhou has approached volunteer service since she first began donating her time to others.
Today, she’s the president of the student advisory board for the Alive Center in Naperville, Illinois, and she helps coordinate the efforts of the ever-growing number of teen volunteers. The goal, she says, is to give younger and older teens a place where they can feel safe to pursue their passions and can learn the skills necessary to be successful later in life.
Points of Light talked with Joyce about her efforts to engage her community more and her desires for future volunteer service.
Why and how did you get involved with the Alive Center?
When I first joined as a volunteer, the Alive Center was still a new organization. It was based around the idea of being a safe and supervised placed for children and volunteer youth to stay after school. From personal experience, I was drawn to that cause. I helped develop the mission of being a teen-led and teen-driven space for creativity and inclusivity. It gave me the opportunity to become a leader in the community and support other teens.
What are your responsibilities there?
I got involved about three years ago — I’m a senior now. I think it’s really important to help children develop life skills — leadership, effective communication, and organization. We can help them overcome challenges and be resilient. We provide them with mentorship and resources that spur personal growth.
Some of our free programs include afterschool tutoring with healthy snack options, STEM programming, girl empowerment and multicultural arts. A lot of my work has involved collaborating with other volunteers to execute these programs. Planning and organizing begins months in advance. I help lead the student advisory board and gather teens interested in our initiatives.
For example, last year, we had a multicultural market fundraiser, and I led a group of about five other teens. In the beginning months, we planned the vendors and the space, the timing and the food. We kept up communications with the vendors and asked for local high school performers to showcase various performances, including dances and songs from their own cultures. Toward the evening when everything was set to happen, we set up practices for all the performances and organized with the owner of the Alive Center.
Who generally comes to the Alive Center to work with you?
The student advisory board has expanded since I joined. When I first joined, there were around 10 to 15 teens. Now, there are around 30 active teens. Some of them are on the board, and some of them help to lead different committees. We have many volunteers. I’m very excited about the increase in teen engagement in my community.
As for the children, about 80 percent of those we serve are from below medium-income families, and 40-percent are minorities. Fifty percent are disabled, and 60 percent are from single-parent families. Every day, we get around 20 regular kids, but for events and clubs, we get more. And, with the larger events, we usually get around 100 families showing up.
When we were a newer organization we had about one large event every other month, but this year, it’s been jam-packed. We’ve had a big activity planned for every month. Since we have different committees, the mission of Alive is based on what makes you come alive. We’re helping youth find their passion. We have STEM committees, education committees, health and wellness committees, and service fundraising. Usually, each committee is in charge of one or two events a year, interspersed throughout the community. We have a multicultural fundraiser in February and a STEM one in the summer. We recently had one on relieving stress. Kids came to have fun and snacks, and we had places for them to study, as well.
What skill sets do you try to help the children develop?
I think one thing we definitely focus on is overcoming challenges and building resilience. It helps to empower youth to overcome the disadvantages in their lives. We’re centered around older teens leading younger teens. We also help them with tutoring and mentoring one-on-one. Some of our mentees are very young, but we do have mentors who can provide some guidance for getting ready for college, too.
What does the diversity committee do?
I’m in charge of the diversity committee, and we had a fashion show recently. We’re also looking into more diversity with health and wellness. We’re planning to offer culturally diverse foods as snack options to increase awareness, exposure and tolerance for other cultures in the community.
What impact do you feel you’ve been able to have on the kids?
My service has been very important because it builds a connection with kids, and it’s proactive in the community in a meaningful and impactful way. I like being engaged with the children and families that come to the program, especially because I get to regularly see the changes in their self-confidence. It’s been really fulfilling to see their passion and hopes bloom with the visits. I can tell it all has an effect in their lives and beyond.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Joyce? Visit All For Good to find local volunteer opportunties.