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by Cafi Cohen

At age 13, our daughter Tamara volunteered one half day each week in a veterinary clinic. Her initial duties were mundane: filing, answering common questions, making appointments, and escorting animals and their owners to examination rooms.

Once she mastered those tasks and the staff had gotten to know her, Tamara progressed to weighing animals, taking vital signs, assisting with examinations and treatments, making up inoculations, and preparing laboratory specimens (all well supervised, of course). After several months, she could identify common microscopic veterinary parasites. Several times she was invited to observe and assist with biopsies and autopsies on dogs, cats, and horses.

Quite an experience! We ended up calling it Tamara’s middle school Life Science course. Judging from some preteens I have interviewed who took "real" middle school life science, Tamara learned a lot more. Unlike her schooled friends, she had no text, no exams – just real world biology, microscopy (with a much nicer microscope than you would find in any secondary school), parasitology, and a smattering of chemistry and math. It was nice for me, the homeschooling parent, also. My responsibilities began and ended as a chauffeur.

Tamara escaped from the house, learned some hands-on biology, and worked with a veterinarian who valued her contributions enough to write her a nice letter of recommendation. She also experienced small clinic veterinary medicine from a "career" standpoint and reaped the intangible rewards (those warm, fuzzy feelings!) that accompany community service.


Volunteer work has always been on my short list roughly – and paradoxically in this case -- titled, "You have no choice about this." (This short list also included daily reading and writing, math, household chores, basic computer skills, and exercise).

Others may argue for the benefits of prioritizing Physics or Latin or World Geography. But I feel teenagers will master those subjects when they need them IF they already have good communication skills, basic math proficiency, computer literacy, fit bodies, and an interest in community service and helping others.

To my mind, volunteer work and homeschooling are made for each other. While it is possible to attend school AND volunteer, homeschoolers -- who do not need to spend six to ten hours daily on classes and homework -- clearly have more time for such endeavors.

Volunteering offers homeschooled teens many opportunities and benefits. First of all, it gets them out of the house. Especially as they grew into their later teens, both our son and daughter looked forward to their community service activities. They viewed their volunteer positions not only as useful but fun. Through their volunteer jobs, they learned new skills, worked with teams of people, and made friends of all ages.

Homeschoolers who volunteer often develop relationships with adults who then serve as mentors and teachers. Many of the adults supervising our children wrote letters of recommendation for them for paying jobs and college applications. It was wonderful to have so many unbiased references confirming their character and abilities.

In volunteering, homeschoolers sample working conditions in various fields. This may lead to an early start on a career. Or, as happened with our daughter, the experience may convince teenagers that their interests and talents lie elsewhere.

As much as she enjoyed the veterinary clinic volunteer position, Tamara decided that animal medicine was not for her. This beats an alternative I have observed too often: dreaming about veterinary medicine (or some other field) as a teenager and studying the subject in college only to learn later (in one’s mid-twenties, after a great deal of time and money) that the actual working conditions hold no appeal.

Our children had a several different volunteer jobs as older homeschoolers. Jeff worked for the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), helping servicemen overseas relay messages to their stateside families. Both our daughter and son volunteered in hospitals, Tamara in a day surgery unit and Jeffrey as part of a hospital transport unit.

Tamara entered computer data for our church. She also worked as a props manager for a community drama group. Jeff and Tamara both assisted in soup kitchens staffed by our church. One summer, our teenagers spent three weeks across the country in a poor neighborhood in Pittsburgh, renovating houses with teams of kids and adults.

In general, our teenagers much preferred their volunteer positions to some of their paying jobs. They found that the volunteer jobs involved more challenge and more responsibility.

For example, as a volunteer, Tamara had complete responsibility for procuring all the props for a community drama production. With her first paying job at a dry cleaner’s, her most interesting task was making change. While making change IS a dying skill in our county, it DOES get old.

From my point of view, as a homeschooling parent, the volunteer jobs often provided hands-on experience in fields that we could call "school". Tamara’s drama work became Language Arts, as did Jeff’s MARS time. The hospital work was Science; the soup kitchens generated interesting Civics discussions (as well as teaching them how to cook for a crowd, which, for all I know, may be a more valuable lesson!).


Our two teenagers only had time to sample a small fraction of the volunteer opportunities available. They had homeschooled friends who volunteered in an incredible variety of settings: libraries, clinics and nursing homes, community drama and musical groups, radio and television stations, museums, political campaigns, community service groups like Habitat for Humanity, hobbyists groups, government agencies, private businesses, and even educational institutions like public schools!

We discovered that are basically three ways to volunteer:

  • As part of an established volunteer program (these are common in libraries and hospitals and museums);
  • For agencies or groups that do not have formal volunteer programs;
  • By creating your own volunteer situation.


Volunteer programs in libraries, hospitals, and museums are especially easy to access as a homeschooler. Why? Homeschooled kids can work as volunteers during hours that most other kids attend school. When we lived in Albuquerque, the children’s hands-on room of the science museum specifically recruited homeschoolers to help out with school tours and maintenance during the day.

Established volunteer programs usually require no experience in the field. Hospitals and libraries and similar facilities expect to train volunteers. They will usually have an award system to recognize time of service and special achievements. Often participating in established programs is the easiest way to begin volunteering.

Of course, the exception to this statement is that established programs usually have age restrictions. Often the youngest age they will accept is 12 or 13. And you may have a ten or eleven year old who is ready for a volunteer responsibility. What then?

Proceed to other venues. AND pursue libraries, especially about volunteering in outside the "program" (see sidebar). In organizations without specific programs, you may find someone more willing to work with a preteen or young teenager. Most notable examples in my experience are political campaigns and drama groups (for backstage work). Both will take almost anyone.

Also, this is a perfect time to think about family volunteering, that is, creating a project on which you and your children work together. Activities like Meals On Wheels and community trail rehabilitation (in parks and wildlife areas) come to mind here.

With children who just miss age cut-offs for programs, another tack to gain entry is to suggest a TRAIL PERIOD for a couple of weeks. You might also propose both you (the adult) and your homeschooler working with the organization for a trial period. After observing your preteen or teen in action, they may make an exception to their age rules.



Teenagers should always consider approaching all organizations of interest, not just those with volunteer programs. Preparation is key. Decide on a field of interest, list organizations devoted to that interest in your community, and write a resume.

The resume need not be heavy on "experience" (although experiences which document interest in the field should be included). The resume should include the following:

  • WHY the teenager wants to volunteer with the organization in question;
  • Any special skills (e.g. word-processing is always in demand);
  • References (neighbors, coaches, music teachers, scout and 4-H leaders, and other adults with whom the kid has worked);
  • Availability; be sure and point out that s/he is available during the day, not just "after school".

Suggest that your teenagers approach organizations without volunteer programs with a telephone call. Your child should ask them if there is a time s/he might come in and talk to them about volunteering (always emphasizing that no task is too trivial – "I’ll do whatever you need done."). If possible, begin with organizations where the family "knows someone," has a connection. Always mention the connection during the initial phone call.

Be persistent.Our daughter Tamara called twenty some-odd vets before she found one that would talk to her and give her a trial run. Be flexible. Maybe the local TV stations are not interested, but the local radio stations will welcome any help they can get.

When it comes time for an interview, tell your children not to be picky about assigned tasks. Teenagers who indicate a willingness to do any reasonable task will always be in demand. In time, they will be assigned increasing responsibilities commensurate with performance.


Probably the most creative volunteer situations I have witnessed have come out of a deep interest in a particular field and networking to satisfy that interest. In New Mexico I knew one 13 year-old girl who was consumed with a passion for animals and was especially interested in animal rescue.

Even as a younger child, she collected materials from animal watchdog groups, wrote articles about animal welfare problems, and attempted to help injured birds, dogs, and cats. She all but ransacked the library for any material on rehabilitating injured animals.

She began volunteering at the local zoo – no program, here, just began cleaning cages, whatever they needed. At the zoo, she slowly worked her way up to helping the on-call veterinarian. More importantly, she met an adult wildlife animal rehabilitator, who became a mentor. Through the mentor, this young teenager eventually was assigned her own distressed animals to nurse back to health prior to release into the wild, a project she developed into a cottage industry.

This young lady did not wait for a program or permission or even formal training. She just did it. One thing led to another. And, eventually, she had her own home-based volunteer situation, rehabilitating wildlife.

What kinds of non-program, non-organizationally-based opportunities might present themselves for a child without a specific direction? Here’s short list, to get you thinking:

  • Picking up aluminum cans at the beach (in California, also a lucrative proposition) or detrashing any part of your neighborhood on a regular basis
  • Visiting and reading to an elderly neighbor or friend
  • Helping an elderly neighbor with yard work or house fix-up
  • Tutoring younger children
  • Rehabilitating throw-away toys and books and donating them to a children’s hospital
  • Reading to younger children
  • Just look around you, and SEE WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE!

That is the key. Urge your teenagers to brainstorm what needs to be done and then do it. You may be surprised at the ideas they generate. Second key? Parental example. Do YOU volunteer? Children are much more likely to approach volunteering enthusiastically if they see a role model in the home.

Volunteering At The Library -- it’s more than just shelving books. Could your teenagers help with these tasks?
1. Computer/Internet docents: help library users with the information superhighway and other computer-related finding aids.
2. Storyteller: needed by most libraries that have children’s sections.
3. Artists: create special events posters and do other graphics work for flyers, etc.
4. Friends of the Library workers: organizing book sales and planning special events.
5. Book repairers: learn techniques to extend shelf life.
If these sound interesting, there are many more. Ask your local librarian for the list "99 Ways To Volunteer At Your Local Library."


Volunteering Together: Three Neat WEB Sites

Benefits of Family Volunteering:

Volunteering Works:

Points of Light Foundation:


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