Simone A. Bernstein is a sophomore at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y. Simone and her brother, Jake, created a website http://www.stlouisvolunteen.com, and will soon launch http://www.volunTEENnation.org, a resource for youth throughout the nation to find volunteer opportunities in their communities.
Over my winter breaks from college, I often stock up on old movies and watch them curled up on the couch. I recently rented the 1970s movie, Turning Point. Anne Bancroft and Shirley McLaine, the lead actresses, reflect and ponder on how difficult and complex decisions impacted and altered their lives. Fortunately, as a college sophomore, I have not yet had to face such difficult life choices as these actresses in the movie. Yet, each of us has our own turning points that mark and highlight the beginning of a new and positive change in our lives.
My turning point was during my dad’s deployment. As a military dependent, it was difficult and challenging for my mom to maintain a sense of normalcy with three young children. Yet the outpouring of support our family received from the community: from volunteers bringing meals, neighbors helping my mom with childcare and errands, and even strangers mowing our lawn, sparked my siblings’ and my desire to get involved and help others. I immediately called the local USO to see how we could all sign up to volunteer. Although they appreciated our interest, due to safety and security concerns, volunteers had to be 18 years old to volunteer onsite. It was tough for my brother and I to find nonprofit organizations allowing youth onsite. We were active with scouts and our religious youth groups, but we wanted to do more.
Though word of mouth, we discovered a few local volunteer opportunities available for youth. We volunteered at the local library, at an emergency shelter for children and, as we got older, the VA Hospital. We were hooked. We met with nonprofit agencies, religious institutions and schools to find ways for local nonprofit organizations to include youth. We created a simple website for youth and nonprofit organizations to connect within the community. The positive feedback in the community from the site led my brother and me to organize the first St. Louis Youth and Family Volunteer Fair. The Volunteer Fair is now an annual spring event. Thirty-five youth- and family-friendly volunteer nonprofit organizations recruit students and families with young children. More than 1,500 youth and families attended the fairs.
We wanted to create more opportunities that offered youth flexible options. My brother and I organized events to engage youth in volunteer service from offering free tennis and basketball clinics for youth with special needs to a youth and family park clean-up. Youth are interested in volunteering service when they are offered interesting, fun and rewarding volunteer opportunities. More than 5,000 youth have found volunteer opportunities though our website, organized volunteer projects, Twitter postings, Facebook notices and text messages. The care and concern we received from the community from our dad’s military service commitment was the turning point for my siblings and me to pay it forward and give back to our community.
To find more resources/tools for military families check out the Community Blueprint Network for best practice sharing and more effective delivery of services among organizations that serve military personnel and their families. To find youth volunteer resources check out generationon.org.