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Hearing from Youth as Well as About Them


So much has been written about youth as volunteers, but most often by adults. Of course adults work with young volunteers, and teenagers and university students have been surveyed directly by researchers. Yet we rarely hear directly from young people in journals such as this one.

Richard Fernandes is a 19-year-old freshman at Drexel University in Philadelphia . Since age 14 he has been an enthusiastic participant in volunteer projects and quickly became a leader, urging and coordinating his peers to get involved. Richard explodes many stereotypes about who volunteers and why – he’s male, African-American, urban, and started his community service as a requirement of residence in a special college prep program for disadvantaged youth, A Better Chance (http://www.abetterchance.org).

We interviewed him for e-Volunteerism in September 2004. Here are some of his thoughts about teenagers and volunteering, and advice for volunteer program managers. Listen to his thoughts on the need to make volunteering “cool” while educating teens on the exciting things they can do through community service.

The audio is no longer available.

e-Volunteerism: How did you get introduced to volunteering?

Richard: The truth is that it started out as a requirement of living in the ABC (A Better Chance) house – they made us volunteer for 40 hours each year. They sold it to us as “giving something back” for all of the help we were receiving in ABC. I was 14 years old when I began and at first I thought it would be boring. But it turned out to be very hands on and exciting, and I got hooked.

One of my first volunteer experiences was with the Special Olympics at Villanova University. I really liked that I could do something with sports and it felt exciting. They also gave us an orientation to disabilities and that taught me something new.

Then, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was chosen to go to a one-week camp program called the Leadership Development Center that was run by the Red Cross. There they taught us all about how to be a leader and organize others. That led to something called “Saturday Leaders,” where we organized high school students to do service projects on the weekends during the school year. The following summer I went back to the camp and stayed involved with the program as it grew. In fact, we took it independent and today it is a 501(c)(3) called Spark The Wave of change (http://www.sparkthewave.org/) – and we have affiliates in Pittsburgh and DC. It’s an all-volunteer effort. This is the first year that I am not on the board, though I’ve accepted the role of regional director.

e-Volunteerism: Clearly you have been a leader of volunteers for quite a while. What advice would you give to volunteer program managers who want to recruit and work with more young volunteers?

Richard: The hardest part of working with teens as volunteers is getting them there. I really believe that, once a young person has gotten a taste of what volunteering is, they will continue doing it. You have to make it cool.

For example, it’s not cool if parents tell you to do it! Or it sounds too much like school, especially in the summer. Volunteer jobs like playing checkers in a nursing home with 100-year-olds don’t sound appealing either. Teens want to do active, hands-on things. I like to tell people that “you can volunteer to do what you love and teach that skill to someone else.” (Richard says more about this in the audiotape.)

I also recommend talking about opportunities to be promoted and to put volunteering on a resume.

There’s another thing, too. For boys, it’s a great way to meet girls! There are always more girls than boys at most places where you volunteer. I think that if more guys realized this, it would be much easier to get them to volunteer, too.


Richard Fernandes mother

As Richard's mother I am extremely proud to call him son. He has broken all barriers and exceeded all expectations.