The many benefits of engaging young volunteers
Charities and organisations can harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people – without undervaluing their contribution
Aine O’Donovan and Niamh Costello of the Irish Children’s Arthritis Network, which actively encourages, supports and trains youth volunteers.
Encouraging our youth to participate in social action and volunteering may seem complicated, yet many will volunteer out of altruism rather than a sense of obligation or simply having something to add to the CV.
This generation are higher up the social conscience ladder than some previous generations and actively seek out opportunities to fit in with their lifestyles.
Research shows that the younger we actively pursue activities to help others, the more ingrained the idea of volunteering will become. Creating and sustaining a long-term relationship with the sector as they move through careers, home lives and relationships is where difficulties lie. Our youth are not to be underestimated. They have big ideas, evolving skills, and an energy and enthusiasm longing to be harnessed. But while this insightful generation has accepted a responsibility to their communities, it is vital charities and organisations recognise and appreciate their continued commitment without undervaluing their contribution.
“Many young people are already active citizens contributing to their communities and passionate about issues like housing and climate change. It’s about harnessing this drive and passion by creating roles that appeal to young people and being able to market them in a way that speaks to them,” says Amy Woods, communications and advocacy manager at Volunteer Ireland. “Creating flexible and attractive roles is key to engaging young people.”
One such organisation which actively encourages, supports and trains youth volunteers is the Irish Children’s Arthritis Network (iCAN).
Niamh Costello (20) has been volunteering with iCAN, which was co-founded by her mother Wendy Costello, since it was set up seven years ago. “I was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) when I was three years old,” says Niamh. “I found growing up with an invisible illness quite challenging as I did not look sick most days and people around me just couldn’t understand my illness and everything that came with it. I always had so many questions and I thought I was the only child who had this condition. There was not much support for myself or my family growing up.”
When she was 18, Niamh became a mentor for the charity which includes sharing her story with JIA and providing support to children and families which she says she never had. “I decided to volunteer more of my time,” she says, “because I could see how much it meant to newly diagnosed families. For them to hear and speak with someone like me who has grown up with JIA is important.”
Throughout her volunteering experience with both iCAN, and also with Barretstown, Niamh believes her confidence and personality have grown. “Through volunteering I have gained so much life experience in things I would never have thought of,” she says. “For me, giving back is so important. I can also see how much it means to the people or charities I volunteer with.”
Not without its roadblocks, she has also felt it hard to get young people involved in volunteering. “One of the reasons is time,” explains Niamh. “I find from talking to a lot of my friends who are not involved in volunteering that they do not want to give up their spare time or they have part-time jobs or long college days that don’t allow time for volunteering.”
Similarly, iCAN volunteer Áine O’Donovan is in her final year of college but juggles her time to support volunteering. “I am also involved in coaching numerous teams in my local club Bandon AFC and with Cork City FC Women’s,” she says. “It’s a challenge I enjoy though, trying to balance everything. This wouldn’t be possible though if I didn’t have amazing support around me. I’ll be forever grateful to my family and friends for their help and guidance because without them all this wouldn’t be possible.”
Diagnosed with JIA when she was 13, Áine spent the first number of years thinking she was the only juvenile in Ireland who had this condition. With an estimated 1,200 young people in Ireland with JIA, Áine includes creating awareness as one of her main concerns when starting volunteering with iCAN. “It’s a disease that has a myth around it that it is for the elderly and not for children. On many a trip to Crumlin Children’s Hospital I have seen babies less than a year old being treated for JIA. Arthritis can come at any stage of your life. The more awareness that is created the better. I also wanted to make sure no child felt the same as I did and feel like they are the only one with JIA because they’re not. We all fight this together and that is what I love about iCAN, we are one big family who are always ready to help each other out.”
One of Áine’s first events as an iCAN mentor was a Live Laugh and Learn day in Dublin where she spoke to an audience of teenagers about her journey and the challenges she overcame throughout secondary school. This led to further events and she continues to be a mentor and a youth panel member actively sharing her insight into her condition and providing astute support to children and their families.
Encouraging our youth to participate in helping others is also about “not being afraid to engage young people and giving them responsibility,” says Woods. “For example, it might seem daunting to give a young volunteer a role curating your social media account, but with training and support it can be hugely positive for both the organisation and the volunteer.”
Trusting youth volunteers to engage, support and highlight the significant work of the organisation has been an empowering experience for both Niamh and Áine. They have represented iCAN in Vienna where they learnt about being advocates for their illness. Remembering to never underestimate our youth, what they can achieve and the passion they have for others, is a strong step for any organisation supporting and growing a strong, determined and long-lasting relationship with youth volunteers.
iCAN is a registered charity run by volunteer parents of children with JIA. If you are interested in supporting iCAN, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a free fundraising pack.
Looking for volunteer opportunities? i-vol.ie is the national searchable database of volunteering opportunities in Ireland and is managed by Volunteer Ireland and the network of Volunteer Centres across Ireland.