Lesson Plans: Recruiting and Training Teens
Making youth groups part of your resource mix, says youth advocate Wendy Lesko, means more than simply having them carry out projects. It means letting them weigh in on the issues and giving them some decision-making power. “Involve teen volunteers in brainstorming and planning,” she suggests. “They have lots of innovative ideas you might not have thought of.” And their tenacity and willingness to try unconventional tactics help them get the job done. She offers these examples:
A group of high school students was planning a rally and feared that turnout would be low. During morning rush hour—without appointments—they paired up and went to all the local radio stations, carrying news releases and donuts. The “donuts to DJs” ploy worked. Students managed to get free airtime to promote their rally, and the publicity increased both participation and media coverage of their event.
A newspaper article about sludge motivated Bellamy Middle School students in Chicopee, Massachusetts, to get involved. Air quality regulations brought a halt to the burning of residential sewage and liquid wastes from factories and public buildings. Hauling the sludge to the landfill was not an option, because it was frozen solid. City officials proposed constructing a costly brick building to keep the sludge warm through the winter. The students suggested a temporary solar greenhouse instead. Their idea, which cost only $500, proved so effective that it became the permanent solution.
For three years, the school district in Geneseo, New York, had been without a budget. A determined group of teens conducted interviews and research documenting the conditions of their schools. They handed out leaflets and went door to door to talk with residents, many of whom were older and did not have school-age children. The neighborhood canvassing and media coverage (the students persuaded newspapers and TV stations to pick up their story) resulted in the approval of a school budget, dramatically increasing the number of computers, textbooks, musical instruments, and other necessary school equipment.
For Their Benefit
In addition to the needs it fulfills in the community, service-learning has a long list of advantages for students. Florida Learn and Serve, one of several government programs that provide grants and scholarships for student service, has gathered data on its impact on young people for the last three years. Students each year have shown strong improvement in three key areas: attendance (83 percent of participating public schools reported an increase), grades, and conduct (80 percent of schools reported fewer discipline referrals). In addition, service-learning is a chance for young people to
- learn firsthand about animal care and control issues. “If we educate young people, and if we do so effectively, then they become good ambassadors and take a positive message to others in the community,” says Bob Downey, executive director of the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska.
- build confidence, competencies, and a sense of self-worth.
- become active contributors to a cause.
- practice patience, kindness, teamwork, cooperation, responsibility, and respect.
- test their leadership skills.
- earn academic credit, build their resumes, round out their college applications (college entrance boards give considerable weight to community service), and secure references for future employment.
- get acquainted with teens who have similar interests. “Those friendships can be a special connection,” says Peggy Bender, a humane education specialist for the Fort Wayne Department of Animal Care and Control in Indiana.
- develop good work habits and learn practical, marketable skills.
- meet professionals in the field of animal care; identify career goals, options, and preferences; and establish contacts in the working world. Many shelters offer job-shadowing opportunities, or “ride-alongs,” where students spend a day with an employee of the shelter in order to learn about that person’s job. Experiences such as these can lead to occupations in animal protection. Says Bender, “Our shelter’s current humane education assistant and the supervisor of our entire animal care division both started out in our shelter’s youth service program.”
Start with a Plan
To get your youth program off to a good start, start with a good plan. “First, know what you need done,” says Downey. Determining your shelter’s needs and identifying duties suitable for young people will help you develop a clear strategy.
Next, consider your training and support needs. “Consult with other groups about what works and what doesn’t,” Downey adds. “Take trips and visit other organizations to find out about their programs. Hearing about a program and seeing it firsthand are two different things. In your planning process, involve outside stakeholders from your community, including teachers, school administrators, and teens themselves.”
Assemble a simple youth orientation packet or handbook that outlines your agency’s mission. Because students may represent your shelter at public events and school presentations, they need to know your philosophy on issues such as adoption, feral animals, and euthanasia. Include information about students’ responsibilities, too. Kris Best, volunteer and special events coordinator at the Minnesota Valley Humane Society, says, “All of our junior volunteers are 14 and older. We require a six-month commitment with a minimum of two visits a month—but many volunteers come in more often than that.” Don’t forget to spell out basic workplace expectations related to confidentiality, punctuality, dress, safety, and other protocol; teens are only beginning to enter the workforce and thus are just learning to develop good work habits.
Reaching Teens: Effective Recruiting Strategies
Now that you’ve mapped things out, how do you engage teens in service-learning opportunities at your shelter? “The first challenge,” says Lesko, “is to attract a small core group of youths that can be the engine to recruit others. Think of yourself as a headhunter. Appeal to students with the message, ‘We need your ideas. Would you and a couple of your friends be willing to help us get started?’ ” Whether you approach teens or their teachers, describe potential opportunities and skills young people would gain from service work at your shelter, including the chance to try creative solutions to animal protection problems and, as Lesko puts it, “to make their mark.”
Begin by contacting middle schools and high schools, church groups, scouting chapters, and other youth organizations. More than one third of all high schools in the United States have formal service-learning programs integrated into their curricula, and many require students to complete at least 70 hours of service with a nonprofit organization. Indeed, the Independent Sector’s study on youth volunteerism revealed that teens who volunteer initially get involved through school (50 percent) and/or a religious institution (53 percent). Browse through schools’ websites to glean preliminary information about their clubs, youth service activities, and courses with a service-learning component; these pages often give the names of faculty advisors you can contact. Many schools maintain a list of possible community service sites; ask to have your shelter represented in such lists.
Most service-learning programs allow students to choose where they would like to serve. Talk to principals, guidance counselors, teachers, Junior ROTC instructors, clergy members, and other youth leaders. (In some cases, such as in Pennsylvania’s Mount Lebanon School District, service at the high-school level has reached such proportions that the school systems have full-time service-learning coordinators.) Those individuals can point you to young people who may be interested in becoming involved with your shelter. Also talk to students themselves—editors of the school newspaper, student council members, and members of school-based animal protection clubs. Teens are four times more likely to volunteer if they are asked to than if they are not: 93 percent of teens who are asked to volunteer end up doing so; by contrast, of those who are not asked, only 24 percent volunteer.
A word of advice on attracting young people to your program: While students who are in good academic standing and active in extracurricular activities seem like the logical choice for participation, they are also frequently overcommitted. “Don’t overlook other young people, including those deemed ‘marginal’ or ‘at-risk,’ ” suggests Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA). “For those young people, the benefits of service-learning are often the greatest.”
Middle school students are referred to the spcaLA’s Teaching Love and Compassion (TLC) program by their principals and teachers. “Not the best students,” says Bernstein, “but the worst. These are usually the most violent, most troubled youth, some of whom are residents of youth detention facilities. They perform a valuable service by training and socializing dogs at our shelter to make them more suitable for adoption. In helping us, they bond with the animals and learn important lessons in empathy, anger management, and conflict resolution. They also share their newfound skills and knowledge with younger students by going into elementary schools to present lessons on humane education and responsible animal care. For many kids, it’s a first act of philanthropy.” As with any service-learning activity, the students keep journals and discuss at school what they have learned.
In your recruiting efforts, be sure to also make information available to homeschooling families, many of whom put a premium on charitable work and experiential learning and seek positive social opportunities for their children. Recent estimates indicate that as many as two million children, or approximately 3 to 4 percent of the student population in the United States, are homeschooled. If you need help contacting homeschoolers in your area, e-mail the National Home Education Network at firstname.lastname@example.org.