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Service-Learning Programs for Teens

Lisa Winiarskyj, HSUS


Why Generation Y?
How Service-Learning Programs for Teens Can Work for You

Lindsey Walker of North Branford, Connecticut, writes a pet care column for the Totoket Times. She also promotes the adoption of shelter animals, and she’s even operated a website with photos and descriptions of cats and dogs in area agencies—an endeavor that resulted in more than 200 adoptions.

On the opposite coast, in Elk Grove, California, Justin Barker drafts press releases, schedules meetings with public officials, and has even appeared on network morning talk shows. The founder of Citizens Lobbying for Animals in Zoos, Barker has worked to build a refuge for injured, orphaned, and exploited bears. “Helping captive wild animals in zoos and circuses is my passion in life,” he says. So far, he’s raised $30,000 for his cause.

In Castle Rock, Colorado, Sarah Byington focuses on educating high school students: She has spoken to classes about puppy mills, delivering a presentation complete with a bulletin board display, a slide show, and a question-and-answer session.

What is impressive about Walker, Barker, and Byington, as much as their commitment to animals, is how much they have accomplished at their age. They are 15, 20, and 14 years old, and all began their activism when they were barely a decade out of the cradle. Barker, in fact, was a junior in high school when he helped build the bear refuge.


Lesson Plans:
Recruiting and Training Teens
Making youth groups part of your resource mix means more than simply having them carry out projects.

Making the Grade:
Tips for Implementing a Successful Youth Program
The Fort Wayne Department of Animal Care and Control teams up with the Boy Scouts of America to provide a unique opportunity for young people who want to help animals.

More than 20 million strong, teenagers are growing in number at a rate faster than that of the overall U.S. population. And contrary to the widespread public perception that they are a self-absorbed, downbeat, disaffected group, a recent Gallup study conducted for Independent Sector (a national coalition of voluntary organizations and corporate-giving programs) reveals that more than half of all teens—59.3 percent—volunteer somewhere, their charitable activities covering everything from health and human services to education and protection of the environment. In 1995, 13.3 million teenagers gave 2.4 billion hours of volunteer time, sorting and handing out food for the homeless, painting over graffiti, tutoring and coaching, restoring wildlife habitats, and organizing pet food drives. In addition, 41 percent of teens contributed an average of $82 of their own money to charitable organizations.

Grass-roots organizations are clearly benefiting from young people’s enthusiasm for delivering services to the community—a good sign for animal care and control agencies in particular, since animal protection is a big draw for teenagers. In Lincoln, Nebraska, for example, where 20 hours of community service is a graduation requirement for high school seniors, the Capital Humane Society and the local zoo are the two most popular sites.

Learning by Doing

Young people volunteer at a substantially higher rate today than they did 10 or 15 years ago. The increase is a reflection of the growth of “service-learning,” an education model that mingles long-term community service with classroom learning: Students identify genuine needs in their community—literacy training, crime prevention, pet adoption—and then assume real responsibilities for addressing those needs. Foreign-language students create English vocabulary books and distribute them to adults and children enrolled in ESL or bilingual classes. Social studies classes interview residents of veterans’ hospitals and nursing homes. Science classes plant willow seedlings along riverbanks to prevent soil erosion. In the process of serving their communities, students gain firsthand knowledge of the subjects they’re studying: foreign culture, history, environmental protection. By connecting students to their communities, service-learning produces better, more active learners and more concerned citizens.

Thanks in large part to federal initiatives aimed at increasing youth service—including the National and Community Service Act of 1990, which awards grants to schools—schools in all 50 states have service-learning programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent of U.S. high schools offered service-learning opportunities in 1999, up from 27 percent in 1984. This national trend offers an excellent recruiting strategy for animal care and control agencies interested in developing or expanding youth programs; partnerships between schools (or youth groups) and community-based organizations are the basis for successful service-learning. Under these arrangements, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, and other instructors lay the academic foundation for students by guiding group discussions, leading journal exercises, and encouraging other forms of meaningful reflection—a critical component of service-learning. Professionals in organizations such as animal shelters, day care centers, and parks and recreation facilities lend necessary expertise in specific subjects and provide the sites for students to engage in service activities.

Five Key Benefits of Service-Learning

  1. It fills a real need in the community, e.g., increasing pet adoptions or enhancing spay/neuter operations.
  2. It ties into what students are learning in school. Students are expected to gain practical knowledge of the subjects they are studying, such as computer science, social studies, physical education, or language arts. That makes it easier for you to recruit teens for assignments in many different parts of your operation, not simply for the animal care side of the work.
  3. It lets kids practice good citizenship. Young people who demonstrate initiative, concern, responsibility, teamwork, and involvement in public life are an asset to you and your community.
  4. It is generally long-term, not a brief or isolated activity, such as a park cleanup. Students must commit a certain number of hours to your organization, often over the course of a semester or a school year. That helps minimize problems such as poor attendance, tardiness, and dropout. And because teachers—not animal care professionals—are primarily responsible for ensuring that students meet their obligations, you do not have to act as an “enforcer.”
  5. It builds in time for structured, teacher-guided reflection. Students think about and describe what they have learned, using journals, articles, reports, photos, videos, group discussions, speeches, and presentations. As they reflect on what they have learned from and contributed to your organization, they also share their knowledge and experience with schoolmates, family, and others in the community.

All Things Considered

Before your organization embarks on a youth service initiative, it’s important to recognize the challenges posed by such an undertaking. While many animal care and control agencies consider young people a valuable asset to their organizations, some might find that developing a formal youth program is not the best approach.

The potential pitfalls of managing a youth program—scheduling problems, dropout rates, staff-volunteer conflicts—are the same as those encountered with any volunteer program. Running a successful program requires a significant investment of time and resources—in planning, organizing, training, supervision, and evaluation. Working with teens raises other issues as well: Do local laws limit the number of hours a minor may volunteer? Does your insurance coverage extend to minors? Are there special provisions for teens working off-site, such as at your annual dog walk? What about riding in your shelter’s vehicle? Can partnering with a school or a youth organization offer you extra protection by limiting your liability?

Research your options. Weigh the costs and benefits to determine if starting a youth program is a good move for your organization. If the answer is “no,” don’t let that stop you from collaborating with young people. There are many worthwhile ways of involving teens in your work with minimal risk and only a small investment of time. For example, instead of involving young people in direct care of animals or developing a formal, full-blown youth program, concentrate on enlisting teens’ help with individual projects, such as an advocacy campaign, fundraising drive, or public awareness initiative.

If, after contemplating the risks and rewards, you decide that a youth program is feasible for your shelter, think about what you would like such a program to accomplish and how that program can provide service-learning opportunities for students.

At Your Service

What can young people contribute to your organization? A great deal of talent and energy, says Wendy Lesko, author of Youth Infusion and Youth! The 26% Solution. Lesko is the founder of the Activism 2000 Project, a national clearinghouse of materials, advice, and information for nonprofit agencies pursuing what she calls “intergenerational advocacy.” She recommends that businesses and civic organizations involve teens to the greatest extent possible in their programs and causes. Here are a few ideas for doing just that.

Use imagery and imagination. Many of the projects students might undertake for your organization lend themselves to the service-learning concept because they are easy to integrate with academic work. Students in computer and media labs and art and photography clubs—who often have access to state-of-the-art equipment and know how to use it—can develop or update your website and newsletter, help with graphic design, create school bulletin boards with photos and descriptions of animals up for adoption, and script and produce public service announcements to air on public-access television. With help from their school’s video production class, a club of 20 high school students from Tacoma, Washington, produced a four-minute educational video, “Protect Your Pet! Spay or Neuter,” that was distributed to schools and television stations. Bob Walter, the club’s mentor and education director at Mt. Tacoma Humane Society (where much of the footage was shot), uses their video in his presentations.

Let them campaign for the cause. English and journalism classes can create leaflets and write letters to the editor on topics such as pet overpopulation and adoption, tagging and licensing, spaying and neutering, safety with animals, and obedience training. Athletes can organize walkathons and races. Business and communications students can promote special events and campaigns—Spay Day, Tag Day, Adopt a Cat Month, Be Kind to Animals Week, and National Dog Bite Prevention Week. To fully expand the talents and skills available to your organization, involve youth in your public relations and community outreach efforts, suggests Walter. Put their energy, idealism, and creativity to work in a broad range of experiences. Young people can effectively represent your shelter at adoption sites and special events, organize collections of pet food and supplies in their communities, set up informational tables in school cafeterias, and staff booths at conferences and exhibits.

Involve them in the daily grind. Some of the most obvious ways young people can be of service to your agency are in the daily operations: building and grounds maintenance, office assistance, socializing and training dogs, exercising and feeding animals, staffing the lost-and-found desk, interviewing prospective adopters, and preparing animals for mobile adoptions. Thirteen-year-old Dan Wostbrock, who cleans kennels, grooms dogs, and helps screen potential adopters, has logged more than a thousand hours at Connecticut’s West Haven Animal Shelter. “I’ve made good friends here, people with similar interests,” he says. “The best part is getting animals to good homes. That makes you feel great.”

Have students teach students. Students who are knowledgeable about animal protection issues frequently take their messages to the classroom—through animal care and safety presentations, essays and reports, and projects on the issues that concern them. As a spokesperson for humane treatment of animals, a young person can breathe new life into your public education and humane education programs. “Teens are especially effective peer educators and role models for younger children,” says Lesko. “It is no secret that kids listen to kids. Teenagers and preteens can be credible messengers who can also influence their parents and other adults.”

Make dollars and sense. When it comes to advocacy and fundraising, teens can succeed where adults sometimes fail. “Young people are powerful activists,” says Lesko, “because to them, everything is possible. The key is to get them involved at the ground floor as much as you can. If they design an initiative, they are in an ideal position to attract contributions, grants, and in-kind donations. They can dream up innovative fundraising strategies that complement more traditional approaches. Moreover, young activists with a history of involvement in an organization can be among the most persuasive representatives in face-to-face meetings with potential donors and grantmakers. The secret is ownership. When young people are actively immersed in the cause and treated as equal partners, that passionate engagement can be unleashed in the never-ending fundraising campaign.”

Offer them the oddball shift. An added benefit of collaborating with teen volunteers is that they can work off-hours. “It is safe to assume that the community needs your organization is addressing exist around the clock,” says Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in volunteerism. “Volunteers can meet those needs, often quite targeted needs requiring off-time availability.”

For More Information

Youth Infusion: Intergenerational Advocacy Toolkit is an invaluable resource for grass-roots organizations that want to involve young people in their programs. The kit contains a video, a 120-page handbook, and a detailed, 170-page guide covering such issues as organizational readiness, youth recruitment and retention, and practical staffing and training tips. Dozens of reproducible handouts, such as sample parent/guardian consent forms and activity planning sheets, are included. The toolkit costs $75 and comes with a money-back guarantee. Orders and inquiries may be sent to Activism 2000 Project, P.O. Box E, Kensington, MD 20895; 800-KID-POWER. E-mail or log on to

Pitch In ( is an e-zine dedicated to the discussion of volunteerism by youth. Of particular interest to organizations is “Supervising Student Volunteers Successfully,” a section of the online handbook Voluntary Action: Giving Back to the Community. For general information on effectively managing volunteers, visit Energize, Inc., at

Open up opportunities for service-learning at your shelter by signing up at SERVEnet (, a program of Youth Service America. Fill out the organizational profile to become a member of the network, which enables you to post notices and recruit volunteers. Youth Corps for Animals ( also hosts a site where animal protection groups can advertise their volunteering needs. Both services are free.

To implement a program modeled on spcaLA’s TLC workshop, contact Mitchell Sigal, Director of Humane Education, spcaLA, 5026 W. Jefferson Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90016; 888-spcaLA1. Or log on to A TLC manual on CD-ROM, containing all the information you need to run your own TLC program, is available for $599, plus shipping and handling. For examples of other animal-related social services programs, see Violence Prevention & Intervention: A Directory of Animal-Related Programs by Debra Duel. The directory, which profiles 29 organizations and describes how their programs are staffed, funded, and assessed, is available for $11 from The HSUS, 2100 L Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037.

Do you know of a teen activist who deserves special recognition? Have you piloted a youth program you’re proud of? Share your good news with HumaneTeen ( The first animal protection site designed exclusively for teenagers, HumaneTeen features true stories of young activists and student clubs from around the country. The site welcomes information from animal care and control agencies about youth who have made a difference for animals in their communities. HumaneTeen includes interactive features, such as a survey that lets teens sound off on animal protection issues and see how others voted. (Survey topics change regularly.) “Speak Up!” gives young people a chance to express their opinions and publish original poetry on animal and environmental topics. HumaneTeen also offers downloadable resources, such as Student Action Guide, a step-by-step manual for teens who want to form animal protection clubs, and resource books for high school students on topics ranging from factory farming to the use of animals in research. These publications are available in print form as well and may be ordered through NAHEE, The HSUS Youth Education Division, P.O. Box 362, East Haddam, CT 06423; 860-434-8666.

“Rebels with a Cause: Reaching Teens Through Service-Learning” is the newest in a workshop series, “Teach Kids to Care,” designed to introduce animal care and control professionals to critical concepts and trends in humane education. Workshops are based on extensive research and feature engaging activities, tips, strategies, and materials for participants to take home and use. For more information or to learn about workshops in your area, e-mail

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