Teen volunteers help young visitors learn about animals at the Detroit Zoo.

Teen volunteers help young visitors learn about animals at the Detroit Zoo.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

Opportunities abound for youth to volunteer this summer

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published March 27, 2019

METRO DETROIT — In just a few months, the summer will stretch out before local youth — weeks of sleeping in, fun, sunshine ... and boredom.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Younger volunteers can make a big difference over the summer instead by helping organizations that feed the hungry and support local children or animals.

“Teens are often very engaged and very passionate when they’re here,” said Carla Van Kampen, the curator of education for the Detroit Zoo. “We’ve also found that people want to engage with youth. It’s a very friendly atmosphere for kids to get involved.

“It’s been good for our visitors to have somebody different ... (and it) increases the amount of interactions we can have with our visitors.”

The Detroit Zoo offers two types of opportunities for young people to help through its Volunteen program. Those ages 14-17 can participate in the Zoo Corps, mostly on weekends, throughout the year.

After training, volunteers help with different aspects of education throughout the zoo. For example, the Zoo Corps recently has been educating visitors about how sound energy affects animals in glass enclosures, showing visitors how sand can move without being touched directly, to “make a connection to banging on the glass in the reptile building or any other building in the zoo.”

The teen volunteers also help out with the Wild for Animals days, hosting activities related to the animal of interest on that day.

Teens ages 16-17 can volunteer to be counselors-in-training for the zoo’s Summer Safari Camps. Van Kampen said that sometimes, children engage better with a teen who is just a little older than them than they would with an adult volunteer.

Teens can apply to be part of the Zoo Corps anytime throughout the year by filling out an application at de troitzoo.org/support/volunteer. Applications are available until April 30 for the counselor-in-training program.

“It helps spread the message of our mission out into the community,” Van Kampen said.

Organizations that help the hungry, like Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan and Forgotten Harvest, also have opportunities for young people to volunteer.

Kids 12 and older can help repack food at the Forgotten Harvest warehouse in Oak Park while accompanied by an adult, said Volunteer Manager Nicole Peeples. Forgotten Harvest delivers surplus food to local charities, providing families with fresh and nutritious food free of charge.

Opportunities are available 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, with information about registration available at forgottenharvest.org/volunteer.

When the weather turns warmer, from about April 15 to the first week of November, volunteers are needed to help at the Forgotten Harvest farm in Fenton, where the organization plants and harvests vegetables.

“It is an amazing site. ... We plant our own food and we harvest it, and we can’t do any of that without volunteers,” Peeples said.

The organization has created opportunities for younger children to help as well. The last Saturday of every month, kids in kindergarten through eighth grade can volunteer during the 9 a.m.-noon shift with a parent at the warehouse. During the summer, Peeples said, they also have a Youth Engagement Program to teach youth groups about what food waste is, what food insecurity is and why Forgotten Harvest does what it does.

“In the summertime, we also have a food program where kids who normally would get lunches during the school year ... we make 10,000 sandwiches during the summer (for them). (Youth volunteers) can come in and participate. They learn there is a need. Some people may look like they’re cool, they’re OK, but they’re one paycheck from catastrophe,” she said.

To learn more about ways that youth can help Gleaners, visit gcfb.org/khk-gleaners.

Some local libraries have opportunities for kids to help other kids as well.

The St. Clair Shores Public Library offers opportunities for teens ages 11-18 to help with its Summer Reading Club. Those interested can fill out an application at the end of April, and then they are trained on the different activities and how to answer questions from children and adults who visit the youth services department of the library over the summer.

“A lot of them have done it from the reader side of it,” said Youth Librarian Liz Drewek. “They have as much fun as the kids in a lot of the programs, and it’s nice to be able to offer them this opportunity.”

She said that the youth volunteers really help make all the different programs possible in the youth services department.

“They get different things from it — a sense of responsibility. They know that we rely on them, so it makes them feel important, which they are. They get to have fun as well.”

For more information, visit scslibrary.org.

Younger kids can help homeless pets by getting involved with craft projects at home. The Michigan Humane Society lists projects — from kitty forts made of boxes to cage covers for dogs and cats, and cat toys — that children can make and then donate to make animals more comfortable at the shelter. Learn more at michiganhu mane.org/just-for-kids.

Students can earn community service hours by volunteering and they can learn valuable skills themselves, Van Kampen said.

“It’s helpful for them, working with a team ... (meeting) new people,” she said. “It’s helpful for them to use problem-solving skills and really expand their public speaking skills as well.”