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In our opinion: Find time to serve this summer

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 on Thursday, July 18.
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 on Thursday, July 18.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Summer in childhood is a glorious thing — freedom, flexibility and fun are the hallmarks of the empty, school-free season for kids growing up. But the sad truth all parents can confirm is summer often becomes more difficult the older kids get. Some parents, who have unaltered working hours, also face the challenge of finding childcare for their young children. High schoolers often start summer work while shouldering mounting pressure to fill their schedules with impressive, self-focused extracurriculars in the hopes of attending their dream college.

In this grind, both students and parents overlook the chance to engage in meaningful service opportunities.

With so much emphasis on child development — better read as paid child promotion — parents are spending exorbitant amounts of money trying to help their kids compete in the most college-worthy extracurriculars. Summer sports leagues, engineering camps, private ACT preparation and the list goes on. In this race, kids whose families cannot afford to send them to expensive programs fall seemingly behind.

But there is a more accessible, more equitable approach to summer that can benefit everyone: investing in service opportunities. As Deseret News reporter Lois Collins writes, service to others has proven to have myriad benefits. Some are clinical, including improving neuroplasticity and executive function. Some are interpersonal; the social skills developed from service boost kids’ confidence and better prepare them for a lifetime of trade-offs and sacrifice, ingraining in them the sense that there is immense value in caring for a community. In an era of social polarization, this unification and shift in focus is needed more than ever.

Additionally, “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,” points out LeAnn Saldivar, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake. And the emotional benefits are hard to miss, too. Performing service “never leaves anyone feeling bored because the act of volunteering is nurturing for one’s body and mind, leaving you with an enriched soul,” says teacher and author Toni Dupree.

While service may have been commodified by a competitive college admissions system to be a source of resume boosting, it shouldn't be the primary motivator for reaching out and helping someone else. Parents and their summer-bored children should think beyond what looks good on paper and help others as an experience with an end unto itself.

If kids are excited about service opportunities, like working at a local zoo or serving food to the homeless, they will be more likely to commit to the experience and take initiative to learn from the job. It teaches the servant that the work is not about self-aggrandizement but about a goal larger than oneself.

Road trips and summer movies have their place, as do engaging programs and camps, but helping others who can't help themselves has no equal.