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For kids to get the most out of summer, they need to do this (hint: it's not playing)

Teachers talk about brain drain and the skills lost over summer. Neglected, though, is a look at all the opportunities to help others and build character and self-esteem by being charitable and caring.

SALT LAKE CITY — The bright green-and-blue kitchen at the Sugarhouse Boys & Girls Club seems small with a dozen people packed into it. Malcolm Spann, 16, is scrambling a huge skillet containing dozens of eggs cracked by his friends, who now line either side of a steel counter covered with stacks of tortillas and gallon containers of cheese, ham chunks and diced potatoes. There’s a giant jug of salsa nearby.

Though many of the kids at the club come here for food during summer days, they are nonetheless focused on feeding other, needier folks they may never see. Once a week, teens gather in the kitchen to assemble 160 homemade breakfast burritos to feed people who are homeless. They’ve teamed up with Marita and Bernie Hart, who run a program called Understanding Us that feeds homeless individuals breakfast, then teaches them to do tai chi — an exercise that stresses physical and mental strength, while learning to control emotions and behavior.

"These kids saved us," says Bernie Hart.

The teens have discovered what many parents, child development experts, mental health professionals and those who run nonprofits already knew: Doing good things for others sets kids up for success in many aspects of their lives.

Experts say kids who are packing their summer days only with pursuits that speak to their own pleasures are missing out on the greatest joys the summer may have to offer. And parents are missing a chance to help their kids become their very best selves.

Teen volunteers Jada Knuttgen and Laine Riley laugh as they make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Teen volunteers Jada Knuttgen and Laine Riley laugh as they make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“With nearly half of the world’s population under age 25, it is critical that young people play a key role" in service to others, including "taking the lead on environmental and wildlife conservation initiatives,” says Sean Russell, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Youth Advisory Council Coordinator.

He sees youth as an energetic and powerful force for good, once they identify the causes that matter to them and take action to address them. Many organizations hope to engage youths, he notes, but youths also can consider undertaking their own projects to improve their world and address the needs they see.

While summer is great for relaxing and doing fun things as a family, Phoenix, Arizona, mom Amy Carney, author of “Parent on Purpose” and a mother of five, thinks it’s a mistake to let children spend their summer solely focused on entertaining themselves.

Teen volunteers Laine Riley and Nick Altman crack eggs to make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Teen volunteers Laine Riley and Nick Altman crack eggs to make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Summertime is the perfect season to encourage our children to serve others," she says.

Making time count

Volunteering and community service reward kids and provide them with growth opportunity that is hard to beat, says Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neurotherapist.

"Helping others is a twofold power ... good for both the giver and receiver," she says, noting young volunteers learn social skills, teens gain experience and community service hours that help them make their next steps, college students can boost their resumes, and adults — especially older adults — gain social connections.

But kids who volunteer make heavy gains. Among them, says Jackson, are becoming less self-centered, discovering their own strengths and talents, while building skills, increasing their capacity for empathy, growing social awareness and finding new ways to have fun that are also fulfilling.

They also benefit physically and mentally, she adds. "Volunteering also provides a sense of purpose that can help to combat depression, loneliness, anger and reduces stress and anxiety. As a result, volunteering promotes happiness and increases self-confidence. Furthermore, studies show neuroplasticity connections and executive functioning in the brain are better maintained with the social interactions that can be obtained through volunteering. All of these benefits equal an increase in living a longer, happier life."

Teen volunteers Laine Riley and Malcolm Spann cook eggs to make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Utah, July 18, 2019.
Teen volunteers Laine Riley and Malcolm Spann cook eggs to make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Utah, July 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Studies show that kids who participate in voluntarism and give back do better in school and tend to be better engaged with school and with their communities,” says LeAnn Saldivar, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake, who says she's seen the gains kids make first hand.

Other experts note additional benefits.

“Youths who give to others learn that no matter where you are in life, you can always give back. It provides tools and resources they can use any time,” adds Jaimie Dunn, director of the Sugarhouse club where the burritos are being made. The youths themselves benefit from volunteers who help them, but they in turn help others through various programs. The collaboration create a sense of community that’s valuable” — for the youths and the individuals who are homeless.

Want to combat summer boredom? Do something for others, says teacher and bestselling author Toni Dupree, who wrote "Straight Up From The Teacup." Volunteering “never leaves anyone feeling bored because the act of volunteering is nurturing for one’s body and mind, leaving you with an enriched soul.”

Finding one’s bliss

But different fires burn in people’s hearts, and making voluntarism stick means children must find what lights them up.

Grace Doleshel, 17, a freshman at Oregon State University, found her life’s direction while volunteering as a youth. “I started volunteering at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, when I was a freshman in high school and through that I made lifelong connections with people (and animals) and was able to discover my passion and desired future.”

Her early volunteering led her to the Washington legislature to lobby for environmental bills, then into work as advocacy coordinator for the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, a Youth Advisory Council member for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens and a 2019 delegate for Sea Youth Rise Up.

"Volunteering with these different organizations has shown me that not only can youth make a big difference in conservation movements, but that they play a very important role in environmental solutions. For anyone who wants to get more involved in conservation and make a difference for the planet, volunteering is an incredible outlet to use.”

Understanding Us co-founder Marita Hart shoots video of teen volunteers as they make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Understanding Us co-founder Marita Hart shoots video of teen volunteers as they make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Scouting has been a passion Garth and Annalisa Fielding of Orem, Utah, share with their three kids, Tiffany, 21, Garth Jr., 18, and Wyatt, 14. Each year they help set up the Blue Mountain Summer Camp, run its activities and then tear it down for the year, among their other community-focused activities. They do other things, too, like Wyatt’s daily stints this summer volunteering at a gun range at Camp Jeremiah Johnson.

Doing for others makes sense to the younger Garth, who told his dad that he sees youths on their phones all day, accomplishing little and not even capable of conversing directly with others. “I don’t want to be like that. I’d rather be doing.”

Lisa Lightner of Avondale, Pennsylvania, mixes love of the outdoors with the need to help others, so she gets her kids, Brian, 10, and Kevin, 12, involved with outdoor cleanup and they also take part in charity walks that raise money for causes that are important to them.

Can you be too young?

Is there such a thing as too young to help others?

Becky Beach of Arlington, Texas, doesn’t think so. She volunteers at a homeless shelter and her 3-year-old son Bryan hands out bread in the soup kitchen. “I believe it will make him grow up more charitable,” says Beach, whose MomBeach.com focuses on helping moms figure out how to make money so they can afford to stay home with their kids. “He will see that some people are in need and then be able to help them,

“Children can help neighbours or even their own family, not for payment but for the sense of doing good” for others, says Sherrie MacLean, national director of operations for Canada-based Tiny Hoppers, an international early learning center. She says even very young kids can help bake a treat for someone and write a note, or help in a neighbor's garden. Maybe a neighbor’s dog needs walked.

Service is a family habit for Amy and Brad Andrew of Lehi, Utah, and their four children. Tyler, 14, Emily, 11, and Jason, 9, help build beds for kids who don’t have any through an organization called Sleep in Heavenly Peace.” Even Sarah, who’s 7, can carry smaller pieces of lumber over to be sanded or put washers on lug bolts.

Teen volunteer Tyrese Johnson helps make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Teen volunteer Tyrese Johnson helps make breakfast burritos at the Sugarhouse Boys and Girls Club to feed the homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Volunteering gives children of all ages a chance to be appreciated while making others feel loved and cared for. “After all, communities are strongest when we work together, and even the youngest in the community can help,” says MacLean.

Caring can be simple

Helping others need not be tricky, either.

Nicole Black of Agoura Hills, California, has taken the expertise she earned as a grade school teacher and her experience with three rambunctious children, ages 12, 9 and 7, and poured them into Coffeeandcarpool.com, which emphasize raising kind kids “through fun, but meaningful activities.” They launched a summer kindness challenge and push families to find opportunities for kids to volunteer and they sent gratitude letters to soldiers and veterans on July 4, among other outward-directed giving.

Despite the extreme heat in Utah recently, Bountiful mom Angela Richens and sons Liam, 12, Ryker, 10, and Seth, 8, spent part of their summer manning a fireworks stand for a program called Davis Education Enrichment Resource to raise money for partner schools in Puerto Rico that were slammed by Hurricane Maria. Last year, the program took a group of youths to Puerto Rico for hands-on work. Richens said Liam was stuck by a little girl whose big wish was to have a birthday cake as she turned 11.

“Stuff like that really has a great impact on children to be able to see, ‘We really are blessed. I don’t have to think about whether I would have a cake on my birthday,” Richens says.

Dupree's list of simple entry points includes helping neighbors with projects in their homes, reading to small children at local libraries, helping older people carry their groceries to their cars (she says to check in with the store first) and reading to and visiting seniors.

Carney and one of her sons started a shared journal of random acts of kindness to help them focus on “how we are kindly serving others on a regular basis. We look for neighbors who need help when they are traveling with feeding their pets or getting their mail or newspaper. We push carts left in parking lots back up to the storefront and we pick up trash when we see it lying around. We enjoy serving as a family with local organizations in our community all year long, but the summer break from school allows us more time to focus on how we can make a difference by showing little acts of kindness everywhere we go,” said Carney, who is a parenting coach, as well.

For those who wonder how to get started, websites like Idealist.org and VolunTeenNation.org have some suggestions on opportunities that welcome teens.