Volunteering Summer Camp Offers Hands-On Service, Leadership Experience to Bay Area Youth

Jul 27, 2017

Every summer, parents and high-school-aged students across the United States look for opportunities to help young people stay engaged and active throughout the season. Summer camps are a common solution, offering programs which are similarly structured to school, but with a more relaxed curriculum that allows for a wider array of learning opportunities. HandsOn Bay Area, a Points of Light affiliate, provides this type of community programming through HandsOn Tomorrow, a leadership and volunteering day camp for high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

HandsOn Bay Area was founded through a merger between Hands On San Francisco and Community Impact – two organizations started by college students as a solution to help people interested in giving back locally find opportunities to do so. Since the 2004 merger, the organization has continued to grow and thrive with the goal of making volunteering a valuable resource to their community. Last year, HandsOn Bay Area engaged more than 20,000 volunteers in service across thousands of projects, in conjunction with 273 nonprofit partners in the Bay Area.

The organization enlists volunteers primarily through a community events calendar that lists more than 100 projects every month, giving individuals the opportunity to sign up for any number of low-commitment volunteer projects alone or with family or friends.

“It takes a lot of the fear out of it,” explained Lou Reda, executive director of HandsOn Bay Area. “All of them are done-in-a-day projects, so the commitment level is just for the project itself and then after that, you’re done.”

The organization has also responded to Bay Area companies looking for simple, low-commitment ways to get their employees involved in service to the community. Working with more than 50 companies of varying size, HandsOn Bay Area matches each with a nonprofit partner that fits the community goals of the company – such as hunger, homelessness, youth development or the environment. Then, they coordinate everything from project planning and supplies to logistics and providing project leadership.

Wanting to engage more young people in service, the organization launched the HandsOn Tomorrow program in 2015 to helps youth learn to be the change they wish to see in the world and to organize together to become community leaders in the Bay Area and beyond.

The annual summer program enlists several cohorts with a maximum of 20 volunteers each. Through the innovative goLEAD (generationOn Leadership, Education and Development) curriculum developed by generationOn, Points of Light’s youth service division, the camp’s participants develop leadership skills through fun, hands-on activities, while also exploring and addressing specific challenges facing their communities.

Since the program started, HandsOn Tomorrow has engaged more than 50 youth volunteers. This year the camp is taking place at the end of July, and two of the three cohorts have already been filled.

During the two-week session, each cohort serves a different nonprofit every day. The mornings focus on hands-on leadership building activities, exposing youth to the background and mission of their host organization. After lunch, they get their hands dirty working on a project supporting that mission.

While the program allows youth to make a big difference in a short period of time, Lou explains that one of the most impactful parts of the program is the capstone project that takes place at the end of the two weeks.

“The biggest moments are when the youth lead their family and friends in volunteer activities during the capstone project,” said Lou. “They are the volunteer leaders of that project … and it’s just amazing to see how powerful it is for our youth to be in charge.”

In addition to earning 55 volunteer hours and gaining leadership skills, participants learn what it takes to make a difference in the community, and how to engage their peers, family and community in meaningful service and function in a team-based environment.

Every year, the youth who most excel in the HandsOn Tomorrow program are nominated by the camp leaders, and five are selected to join HandsOn Bay Area’s Youth Advisory Council. These young leaders are given the opportunity to help the organization plan service projects. In 2017, this included HandsOn Bay Area’s main National Volunteer Week service event – a mini-mural design project – to help beautify a local school.

Along with the opportunity to plan projects, members of the Youth Advisory Council get continued leadership advancement training, which in turn helps the organization build up its leadership pipeline.

“The plan is to move people along the leadership spectrum of engagement,” said Lou. “We’ve discovered it’s a pretty powerful program.”

Robert Montgomery