Teen volunteering has healthy consequences

In 2010, 4.4 million teenagers (26 percent of youth ages 16 to 19) gave 377 million hours of volunteer service to communities across the United States; 39 percent of teenagers who volunteer, do so on a regular basis. In this photo City Year Corps volunteer, Leon McClain, right, helps assemble emergency preparedness backpack kits at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Rima Himelstein, M.D.

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead

In 2010, 4.4 million teenagers (26 percent of youth ages 16 to 19) gave 377 million hours of volunteer service to communities across the U.S.; 39 percent of teenagers who volunteer, do so on a regular basis.

One of my patients, Chardae Davis, has been involved in Crozer-Chester Medical Center’s Youth Development Programs since she was 11-years-old. At first, she began participating in leadership, health and life-skills workshops in the classroom led by Chester High School peer leaders. At 14, she became a junior peer leader and then a peer leader in the very same program.

As a 24-year-old college graduate, she is the coordinator of one of our peer mentoring programs. According to Chardae, “I realized that if I wanted to see a better community, I would have to be a part of that change. Volunteering and its labor are not always glamorous, but it is vital. It is most rewarding to be involved with the health and education initiatives that help my community and its citizens grow. The community and its future are in our hands. It is our generation's responsibility to preserve and nurture our community.”

“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” -Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.

Everyone can find volunteer work. The choice for teens should depend on their particular interests. For example, my teens are interested in the Holocaust and are volunteers in the Witness to History Project. As part of this project, they have interviewed Holocaust survivors and presented the survivors’ testimonies to peers in schools, libraries, and detention centers. The goal is to educate others about the Holocaust and to emphasize the message that “racial, ethnic and religious hatred are social poisons that affect individuals, families and communities.” Each time teens present they feel that they are helping to achieve this goal.

“It is one of the beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Even a single act of helping can have ripple effects on many people. As expected, it has direct benefits on the person who has received help, but it also helps the helper. Adolescents who volunteer do better in school, feel more positive about themselves and are less likely to do risky behaviors. Volunteering may have powerful health benefits, too.

For example, when people help others they experience feelings of pleasure and well-being known as “helper’s high.” Helper’s high is associated with increased production of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that also reduce pain and are natural stress killers. Other benefits may include:

  • Stronger immune system
  • Decreased headaches, back pain, depression, and hypertension
  • More positive outlook on life
  • Greater sense of connectedness with others

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” -Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.

Some teens may not know how to get involved. Here are some ideas on how parents can help: 

  1. Talk to your teen about volunteering and giving it a try.
  2. Look for volunteer opportunities that match your child’s interests. Ideas can come from looking on the internet for “volunteers wanted” ads or calling hospital and nursing home volunteer departments. Maybe your teen wants to organize a fundraiser, a group clean-up, or a lemonade stand or walk-a-thon for a charity. If your teen has an unpredictable schedule perhaps volunteering from home is a better fit; perhaps mailing letters to sick children or to our troops. The possibilities are endless! 
  3. Help your teen stay committed . Although this is not a “job," it is a responsibility, and an extremely important one.

Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.

Are your teens volunteering? Is it making a difference in their lives and the lives of those they are helping? Tell us about it!