I remember my first summer volunteering at the age of 12 for my local YMCA summer camp. Being the youngest of three and seeing my older siblings head off to work each day as camp counselors, I was determined to get in on the action and not be left at home alone. I managed to convince the camp director to let me join the team as a volunteer that supported activities for the 6 year olds. That experience, coupled with many others including serving as a youth representative on a national board and launching a nonprofit at the age of 18, opened my eyes to a number of key lessons on how to effectively engage youth as volunteers, partners, and problem solvers.
Lesson #1: Build Authentic Relationships
When we invest in getting to know each other below the surface, we open the door for establishing more sustainable and trusting relationships. We all have had people come in and out of our lives, often times seeking something in the moment and then moving on. That can impact our willingness to openly trust others and be vulnerable by showing up with full authenticity. We can build long term relationships with youth when we mutually explore the experiences that we have had, the values that influence our choices, and the perceptions that we hold in our minds.
Lesson #2: Focus on Strengths
From early on in our lives, we have been told that there are things that we are good at and things that we need to improve. Many of us focus our time and energy on our areas of weakness, determined to improve and gain acceptance from those judging us. If we refocus our time and energy on further developing and deploying our strengths, we can gain a greater sense of satisfaction. Often it is in our strengths that we discover our passion and define our purpose. By encouraging youth to leverage their strengths and identifying tangible opportunities to do so, we empower youth to be active contributors to teams and communities. This leads youth to feeling valued and to gaining a stronger sense of belonging.
Lesson #3: Challenge with Growth Opportunities
When working with youth, it is important to challenge them to step outside of their comfort level and experience new interactions with people, places and events. It broadens their frame of reference and shows them unique possibilities. We all have a tendency to stick with what is familiar which limits our network and opportunities. To expand the success trajectory for youth, it is our obligation to provide as many growth opportunities as possible and encourage them to explore, discover, and integrate these new experiences into their future decision making and point of view.
Lesson #4: Celebrate and Recognize
Recognition is a critical element in building and sustaining effective relationships with youth. Many youth today feel constantly judged and criticized by their peer group, families and the media. By celebrating their accomplishments and recognizing their growth both one on one and publically within group settings, youth gain greater self-confidence and strengthen their connections to you, a group and the broader community which is now embracing and validating the value and the strengths that youth bring to the table.
Effectively building relationships with youth requires time, consistency and authenticity. As these partnerships unfold, we have the opportunity to be catalysts of change, setting youth up for success both today and for the long term while strengthening our organizations and foundations with game-changing leadership that spans across multiple generations.
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