Volunteer Frenzy! (Say Yes)

cart cleaning
Cart cleaning…don’t think about it.

It’s that time of year! As youth services librarians put the final touches on their summer plans  – events, activities, decor, classroom visits, reading games (or otherwise) – some of us are lucky enough to deal with another rush – of teens needing all the volunteer hours…right…now! No joke: I get several emails each day, starting in mid-May, from teens looking to earn service hours (2, 4, 6, 20!) before school lets out in mid-June. The library offers several options for volunteering, but no other area matches the teen department in terms of volume and tight turn-around requests for hours.

I mean it when I say ‘lucky.’ I won’t deny it – working with volunteers can be challenging. They run the gamut from ‘I want to be here’ to ‘I have to be here’ to ‘I really have to be somewhere or else I’ll be in big trouble so this will do.’ When I need help or coverage for things, my staff and colleagues are always ready to jump in, but our volunteer days are always the very last thing they opt for. They hate it and I get it. It’s not an easy thing, working with young people. Some adults don’t have an aptitude for it (not judging – they do their adult-y stuff very well.) Combine that sensibility with an activity where you are giving teens something they need and have literally asked (or pleaded) for, but aren’t really too happy or enthusiastic about doing, and you have a situation that is challenging for everyone involved.

The way we work with teen volunteers is a bit different from you might expect – completely drop-in and at-will. We offer a regularly scheduled volunteer opportunity each month (Service Saturday, the first Saturday of every school-year month, and its cousin, Service Wednesday in the summer) but there is no registration and no limit to how many teens can attend in the set time frame. I’ve been told that this is bonkers: How can you plan? What if you run out of work? How do you make it meaningful for everyone involved?

How and what indeed…I’m going to take that backwards.

‘Meaningful:’ It’s important for teens to feel valued. I work in an affluent area (with non-affluent neighborhoods including my own residential pocket, surrounded by less affluent towns with residents who use our services heavily) where teens are often seen, sometimes heard, but not always valued. There is a significant difference between these three things. General teen advocacy is one of the most important parts of my job. Teens have tremendous value and deserve to be furnished with meaningful opportunities to make a difference in their communities.

But…not during our drop-in service hours. We set this in place because we were getting so many (so, so many) requests for volunteering and it was proving to be onerous to schedule times that worked for ‘the library’ (or, the staff who didn’t mind spending time teaching teens how to do stuff even though they’d likely never become ‘permanent’ volunteers) and the busy, primarily high-school-aged teens who needed hours. A drop-in program meant that teens didn’t have to plan in advance – they can stay for as long as they’d like. They can turn up at any point in the day. They can skip a session. For over-scheduled teens, swamped with school, jobs, clubs, future planning – figuring out how to get hours done can be a source of stress. By moving to a drop-in system we did our best to minimize that for them. Yes – it meant more stress for us, but we are grown-ups and we can take it.

Once we settled on this course of action, we had to let go of the idea of volunteering as an enrichment activity. I wish it were otherwise. I am always looking for ways to extend what we do for volunteers into something with more intrinsic value, but the more we carried on with this plan of action, the more we realized that it was really okay – the teens are looking for and need hours. Skill-building is incredibly important. Opportunities to take ownership and feel a sense of responsibility are vital for teen development. (Hey ya, 40 Developmental Assets, I see you over there, judging me…we care about you and use you to evaluate most all of our services and programs!…Just not this one…okay? Please don’t be angry.) Sometimes, though, you have to accept that the teens you are working with, in that moment, aren’t interested in what you are selling, development-wise. They want hours. They want someone to check off a box or sign a form or scrawl a signature and jot a phone number on a sheet promising (threatening?) to check up on whether or not these hours were actually completed. (Never, not once, has anyone called us to verify hours, even those that were court-mandated.) We have heard our teen community, and while we know what teens ‘need,’ sometimes you have to give them what they are actually asking for.

sloth_(c)_Jorge_Salas_International_Expeditions
A recent teen volunteer

Once we let go of (or reluctantly set aside) of the idea of meaningfulness, it became easy to plan for volunteers without knowing how many would turn up. We’ve developed a list of stuff to do throughout the building and only on our heaviest days (when we get past 25+ volunteers) do we ever come close to running out of stuff for them to do. It’s not glorious – shelving and shelf-reading and the dreaded rounds of dusting and even worse, cart cleaning. We have to keep an eye out for teens so disinterested that they move past the point of caring about accuracy (no, we don’t mind if they approach their tasks in a fashion that would make a sloth look industrious, but we do run shelf-tests and have had our semi-nuclear moments when we spot egregious errors, but they are exceedingly rare. Most volunteers get the job done right.)  Our program has blossomed – like anything else, it has taken years of consistent and diligent adherence to our schedule, but there has been exponential growth in the number of teens we serve.

The word is out, and aren’t we lucky. Teens know this is a place that will help them with what they need outside of just the general providing of stuff. That’s a big deal.

They also know that if they find themselves in a ‘volunteer emergency,’ my favorite descriptor used during the May-June rush, we will do whatever we can to get them those precious hours. We say yes, whenever we can. Then, more teens ask. We keep saying yes. On and on it goes, and here I am today, with three volunteers who turned up because I said yes to one of them. They are shelving in our new book area. Maybe they’ll continue to volunteer in their spare time, but it’s more likely they won’t. After all, they are so busy all the time. They will, however, leave with a good feeling about the library. That has always been our most central goal –  it may not be lofty, but it’s meaningful.

UPDATE: We just crossed the 500-hour mark with our drop-in and appointment volunteers for this fiscal year!

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