Giving Back

Young volunteers get more than just experience.

Many are aware of the dual benefit of volunteering— helping the community and feeling good personally in turn. Not surprisingly, kids reap the same rewards.

The Volunteer Center of United Way offers exciting volunteer opportunities for both adults and kids. In 2009 alone, The Volunteer Center referred more than 15,000 people to volunteer projects— of which 32 percent, or 4,917 people, were young people.

Parents who encourage their kids to volunteer forge a lifelong commitment to service and provide an opportunity for children to branch out and develop independently. The Volunteer Center makes finding a volunteer opportunity easy as family members can search through hundreds of options online.

National Volunteer Week occurs April 18-24. This is a wonderful time to get your family involved in volunteering. And The Volunteer Center invites you to the Volunteer Spirit Awards Celebration on April 23 to recognize a distinguished group of volunteers who have done extraordinary work in Westchester and beyond.

A favorite local place among volunteers is the Greenburgh Nature Center. Bronxville resident Chris Hoffman, 17, and Sophia Golec, 16, from Yonkers currently volunteer as tour guides at the animal facility. Hoffman especially enjoys the little children who visit. "The kids are transfixed, he says. "It's so great." As a volunteer, Hoffman learned the important life lesson of standing up for himself from an unlikely source— the turkeys! Someone suggested that Hoffman face turkey aggression by walking calmly toward them. And that he did.

Golec says that her favorite animals at Greenburgh are the hedgehogs and the milk snake, which is colorful and on the smaller side, hence less frightening to kids. Golec also conquered a fear at Greenburgh. When she first handled a large snake, she was nervous. But her nervousness went away upon continuing her volunteer work. "Once you put your hand in [the habitat] all fears go away," she reveals.

Penny Berman, who heads up the volunteers at the Greenburgh Nature Center, says it's a joy to see the teen volunteers grow through the years. Young people can start volunteering at age 14 and continue through their senior year of high school.

Another student favorite that you can find on The Volunteer Center's Web site is the SPCA in Briarcliff. Sleepy Hollow resident Molly Rickles, 11, went to the Briarcliff SPCA's Camp Critter. She learned how hard it is to find a home for her sponsor dogs, which include three American Staffordshire Terriers. Even months after camp ended, Rickles was still working hard to find a caring owner for them. Brianna Mondesando, 10, from Yonkers chose a cat named Baboo as her sponsor animal. She was thrilled when Baboo was adopted. "A few weeks after camp," reports Mondesando, "I got an e-mail saying he had gotten adopted!"

In charge of the volunteers, Alice Shanahan notes the value of the SPCA's affiliation with The Volunteer Center's professional development program, Westchester Association of Volunteer Administrators (WAVA). "[Members] help each other to do their jobs better," says Shanahan.

Sister Beth Dowd of Songcatchers also notes the close relationship between her organization and The Volunteer Center. "Soon after starting our After School Music Program where high school volunteers teach music to children who cannot afford lessons at the going rate," says Dowd, "we turned to The Volunteer Center and the WAVA program for guidance and exposure."

The Songcatcher's program is as important to the volunteers as it is to the youngsters who benefit from the music lessons. Vanessa Torres, a senior at Harrison High School, volunteers to teach piano and flute with the program. "Growing up through this program and its life lessons has taught me to be a leader and to be aware and give back to my community," reflects Torres.

The Volunteer Center has a Youth Volunteer Guidebook that features hundreds of projects kids can do for worthwhile programs such as Kids For Wish. Lily Polito, 7, asked guests at her birthday party to donate to Make-A-Wish Foundation, in turn raising more than $1,000 for the charity. Danielle Turnbull bought Make-A-Wish bracelets to use as napkin rings at her bat mitzvah. She also created 89 goodie bags with her friends for Wish children. Such deeds are always well-received. According to Abe Almanza, volunteer manager of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Hudson Valley, volunteers who have come to Make-A-Wish from The Volunteer Center have a made significant impact in helping Wish kids.