Ethan Woods wasn’t sure what the future held when entering Mars Hill University three years ago. After growing up in a divorced family as a gay child, they knew they were different and felt adrift, with no clear direction.
“But when I started volunteering at the YMCA after-school program, I had this whole revelation that this is what I’m meant to do,” says Woods, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, with unabashed joy.
One of the requirements for a scholarship Woods receives is some form of community service, and they are grateful for the push. “I was coached and guided by the scholarship board and the people at the Y,” they say. “I’ve been able to understand myself more. Now I know I want to get into social work and help other kids like me. I declared a social work major and eventually want to start a nonprofit to help LGBTQ+ youth.”
Delaney Burke, who directs youth operations for the YMCA in Western North Carolina, says she notices that adolescent volunteers get as much out of their service as do the younger kids with whom they work. “They take leadership roles,” she says. “And when they see themselves as leaders, they become more confident. I’ve seen kids who were shy when they started volunteering become rock stars by the time they leave.”
In addition to getting a firsthand look at the inner workings of a nonprofit organization, this type of creative volunteering often leads to paid jobs as well, Burke says. “The YMCA hires youth as young as 16. We’re hiring now, and many of the young people we hire start out as volunteers.”
When teenagers get involved in connection with other people and learn empathy, the chemicals in their brains actually change, says Laurie Tollman, a Weaverville counselor who extensively studies the mind-body connection as it pertains to mental health.
“The feel-good hormone oxytocin is released at a very important time in their development,” Tollman says. “A lot of private schools in Asheville require volunteer work for students because they know how important it is for healthy development.”
She adds that volunteering as a teenager is vital to character development that sets the stage for a lifetime of success. “Teens who find this [level of compassion] have a better chance of staying out of trouble, getting good grades and following a successful career path,” Tollman says. “And they get a big boost in their self-worth when they’re involved in caring for, giving to and helping others.”
Anthony Sgro, head of Asheville School, agrees. The private high school places as much value on community service as academics, he says.
“It’s part of the ethos of the institution, to be engaged with other people,” Sgro says. “Empowering other people is just as great for the community as it is for the person helping.”
Madison Young, a junior at Asheville School, says that volunteering after school with Elinor Earle and the kids at the Youthful HAND program at Hillcrest Apartments has been enormously fulfilling and eye-opening. “I first strictly taught academics,” Young says. “Now I go to show them that they have value and to model stability.”
Her volunteer work has taught her new levels of empathy, in addition to inspiring a career path that involves pediatric psychology or neurology. “People see kids and think that they’re just troublemakers, when in actuality they don’t know what’s really going on in that kid’s life,” she explains.
And as teens find their way to their ultimate paths in life, they have opportunities to influence their communities in the present, says Judy Mattox, chair of the WNC Sierra Club. She saw the impact passionate teens can have when students joined her to push for Buncombe County putting solar panels on government buildings.
“It’s a lot more powerful when a young person tells a politician to look them in the eye and tell them they’re not interested in investing in their kids’ future,” Mattox says.
Song Kim, a senior at Nesbitt Discovery Academy in Asheville, is proud of a presentation she made to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in October about putting solar panels on all county schools. “I felt amazing, knowing I played a part in them taking a better route,” she says.
Mattox also credits the efforts of teen volunteers with helping turn the tide of last year’s Board of Commissioners election in Woodfin by handing out Sierra Club voter guides at the polls. She says that teens like graduating senior Fiona Austin helped environmentally supportive candidates win with 80% of the vote in an unprecedented turnout.
When teens find their passions and get fired up, Mattox says, they are unstoppable. And with that motivation, she continues, they make a “powerful difference in the world.”
Kim, who’s also been volunteering for the past eight years at a nursing home, has solidified her passion for health care, in addition to the environment. “My interest now lies in medical research,” she says. “There are tremendous ways to get involved in health care in underdeveloped countries, sharing what we have in this country.”
Girl Scouts in WNC are continually amazed that their service projects “make the world a better place today,” says Valerie Alexander, troop experience manager for Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont. Whether they’re building a cistern to collect rainwater as part of an environmental project or tutoring at-risk kids in reading, Alexander says the process for Girl Scouts involves finding their passion, mastering leadership skills and creating sustainable projects.
“It’s an important distinction that whatever they create continues long after they leave,” Alexander says. “It’s an eye-opening experience to know that we make the world a better place.”
Winston Shearin, council commissioner for the Asheville-based Daniel Boone Council of Boy Scouts, agrees that building character is one the most rewarding benefits of service. “And it’s not always about creativity, but more about consistency,” Shearin says. Scouts begin to learn the value of service from their very first Scouting experience, he adds.
Christain Basulto, 17, has been a Scout since he was 11 and believes that “service of all types builds character.” The Pisgah High School student says that “my service experiences in Scouting have been particularly enriching. As of late, I am able to get realistic leadership experience by guiding these efforts.”
Also a leader in Shearin’s Navy Junior ROTC unit, Basulto is particularly proud of his Eagle Scout project, which was to install an orchard on his high school’s property. “I really feel that this project will go on to provide useful and enlightening experiences for kids taking agriculture classes,” he says. “It will give students a firsthand look into fruit farming, and next time they grab produce off of a grocery store shelf, they will truly know how much work and time went into it.”
And as they get into their projects, Shearin says, something happens to volunteers like Basulto. “They realize it might not be fun, but what they’re doing is important. And they do a lot of things that make an impact for which they don’t get patted on the back. But the Scouting principles they learn work all across society and through the boys’ and girls’ lives who practice them.”