Making the Grade
Tips for Implementing a Successful Youth Program
Sixteen years ago, the Fort Wayne Department of Animal Care and Control teamed up with the Boy Scouts of America to provide a unique opportunity for young people who want to help animals. The Boy Scouts’ Explorer Post program is designed to offer male and female students, ages 14 to 21, a way of exploring their personal career goals. To that end, the scout office takes a survey in schools to determine the career and hobby interests of students. That information is passed along to local businesses and organizations—from law firms to law enforcement agencies—who are interested in sharing knowledge with young people and giving them a chance at hands-on experience in their fields.
“Based on the survey, students who express an interest in animal careers, usually somewhere between 500 and 600 kids, are referred to our shelter each year,” says Peggy Bender, Fort Wayne’s humane education specialist. “In September, we mail a letter of invitation to each of them to attend a first-night enrollment kickoff. We generally get 8 to 10 percent attendance from this letter. Roughly 50 students join our program each year.”
The Animal Careers Explorer Post is based on a five-level merit system by which students earn points participating in projects and activities that involve the care of shelter animals, promote adoptions, and foster the responsible treatment of animals in the community. For example, helping with a bulk mailing or open house is worth anywhere from 15 to 50 points, volunteering at a walk-for-animals event earns 25 points, and organizing a coins-for-pets campaign to benefit the Spay/Neuter Assistance Program or Injured Animal Fund equals 100 points. As they earn points, teens progress to different levels within the Post—each with a different animal name. They also have an opportunity to earn the Pets’ Choice Achievement Award and have their names added to a plaque at the shelter. “Our youth program benefits our shelter in a number of ways,” says Bender, “and I believe it has tremendous benefits for the students too, both personally and academically.”
Proponents of service-learning opportunities like these point out its many advantages over more traditional community service opportunities, which are often relatively short-term or one-time activities. To count toward academic credit, service-learning requires a commitment of time—often an entire semester or a school year—which also helps minimize the dropout rate for participants. The service-learning experience is guided by an adult outside your facility, usually a student coordinator or teacher whose role is to ensure that obligations to both the student and the organization are met. And because young people are often given discretion about where they would like to serve, odds are that those who choose your facility have a sincere interest in helping animals.
Keep in mind that service-learning partnerships are just one way of positively linking animal care and control professionals with students. Other programs, including summer camps, after-school workshops, internships, and clubs, are also valuable options. What is key to the success of any youth program is that it is structured in a way that benefits everyone involved. Here are some tips for making the most of your youth program—or almost any youth initiative.
Make a match. Assign students to projects and activities that fit their particular skills and capabilities. A simple way to determine students’ interests, goals, and aptitudes is to conduct informal interviews or to have students fill out interest questionnaires. Many animal care and control agencies post volunteer interest forms online; survey other shelters’ websites for ideas you can incorporate into your own questionnaires.
Make it fun. Service opportunities at your shelter should also be opportunities for young people to build friendships and work as a team. Aside from involving teens in meetings, projects, and campaigns, consider hosting pizza parties, movie nights, or other social gatherings.
Make it worthwhile. “For any program with teens to be successful,” says Bob Downey, executive director of the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska, “it must be structured so that it is meaningful to them. Young people need to feel a sense of accomplishment and productivity. They need to be treated with respect, which includes having input that results in change.” Involve youth in decision-making, give them plenty of interesting, challenging, and satisfying assignments, and make it clear how their work fulfills your shelter’s mission. According to Independent Sector, teens have a higher volunteer rate if they believe they have a moral duty to help—and if they believe it’s within their power to overcome social problems through their volunteer efforts.
Make it work. If possible, have a full-time employee coordinating your youth programs. That person should evaluate students’ performance, give constructive feedback, and provide ongoing training and supervision to ensure a safe, positive experience.
Use newsletters, memos, e-mails, and discussions to help students stay abreast of what is going on in your organization. (Letting them in on budget issues is helpful, too. Without this information, young people involved in your campaigns may think your organization has unlimited resources!) When they propose ideas, suggest ways of tying those ideas in with upcoming events. “Piggybacking an initiative onto an ongoing campaign usually boosts a campaign’s momentum,” says youth advocate Wendy Lesko.
Stay on top of your youth force as well, she recommends. Working with minors involves some special considerations; a teenager’s competing interests, lack of transportation, and limited control over a busy schedule represent very real challenges. “Don’t give up,” Lesko says. “You may have to make repeated phone calls, but the extra effort is worth it.” Keeping in touch with parents—through flyers, permission slips, and handwritten notes—is vital, too. The more they understand how their children are contributing to your organization, the more supportive they are likely to be. Parents can also be called upon to help with carpooling and other needs.
Make it official. Maintain written records of services contributed by students. Accurate reporting can be especially important in the case of service-learning, where proof of hours and assignments completed is often required. Provide rewards, recognition, and publicity as well, and supply letters of reference when requested. Lesko suggests printing up a batch of business cards that you can personalize with students’ names and titles. Consider appointing teenagers to serve on your board of directors in a voting or advisory capacity. At Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control, any student who has been in the shelter’s Explorer Post program for a year can become part of the president’s council and attend officer meetings.
Spread the word. Teaming up with young people, especially those who are dedicated to helping animals, can revive your passion for animal protection and bring new spirit to your cause. Whether you’ve established a youth program or are in the early planning stages—or if you simply seek young people’s input and involvement from time to time—trade ideas and information with other animal care and control organizations. Share materials and discuss common setbacks and practical solutions. Working with youth presents unique possibilities; networking with other animal protection groups can go a long way toward making the most of those opportunities.