There were very few things in my small hometown for any child of any age to do other than play sports (which I was not interested in because there was no swim team) or participate in cheerleading or dance (which we didn’t have the money for). There was no place for any of us to volunteer for anything until late high school. I was in the Girl Scouts, and I distinctly remember working on a badge that suggested I volunteer at a business I was interested in. I was excited at the idea and the next time I was at the library, I asked. They said they did not allow 10-year-olds to volunteer. I am persistent (read: stubborn) so I was later given permission to volunteer in my middle school library during after lunch recess. It was also the high school library, so I continued my volunteering there through 10th grade, mostly shelving books for a few minutes a day.
In my second high school and throughout college I did work-study at the school libraries, learning the ins-and-outs of the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems, becoming familiar with the way library databases work, and how to work with people who don’t understand libraries.
After college I worked in two libraries, one public and one at a college. I became the first Assistant Director and Children’s Librarian at the public library and ran over 250 hours of programming a year. It was the best job ever.
I still don’t understand why I was not allowed to volunteer in my public library as a child, even after having so much library experience. Why am I still confused? Because I had youth volunteers all the time!
How to harness that youthful energy
1. Make a list of your daily and weekly tasks and figure out which ones can be assigned to volunteers.
This is a good idea anyway–many of us in the children’s programming profession (or any non-profit or public-sector work) are stretched too thin with things we would like to do if only we didn’t have to do the filing or copying. With a little training, most volunteers can do these things, as long as what you’re asking them to organize isn’t, you know, the personnel files on all your staff.
I have had volunteers who love to vacuum (especially youth volunteers), those who want to decorate a bulletin board, and those who would rather have the job of replacing all the stickers on the EZ Readers. How about sharpening pencils? Or making sure all the markers in the craft supplies still work? These are tasks that would make your life nicer, spruce up the UX (user experience), and supply your volunteers with “job” security.
By developing a list of things you would like done on a regular basis by volunteers, you can develop a pool of people constantly investing in your space and your organization, and willing to take on a bigger project in large groups, like painting the downstairs hallway one day after closing.
2. Find out what the child is interested in doing and what is developmentally appropriate.
My library had a volunteer application which included a checklist for aspiring volunteers to describe their interests and skills. The checklist was based on the tasks we might need them to do, such as “computer skills”, “web design”, “organizing”, “craft preparation”, etc. This way, we could redirect everyone who wanted to just run a storytime every day–we already had a fantastic storytime leader, but we really needed people who could alphabetize to help us keep our children’s DVDs in order (2 year olds and spinning DVD racks…).
How young should you start? Well, our library had a policy which stated that a child could not be left alone at the library until they were 10 years old, unless they were attending a program for which they had registered ahead of time. Anyone under that age would have to volunteer with a parent in the library (say, organizing the toy shelf or finding cool books to put on display), should they lose interest and need to leave before the end of their “shift”. We never specified shifts for youth volunteers, just times in the week when we were willing to corral them. In retrospect (especially if I started getting many volunteers), I would probably make shifts of 30 minutes each so that they were not handed too many tasks in a row, but were also going to maintain focus to the end of their shift.
When coming up with your own volunteer application for youth, I would suggest creating stages of youth volunteer, like Junior Volunteer, Youth Volunteer, and Program Volunteer, for instance. In this way, you can categorize your tasks based on developmental levels. Junior Volunteers might only be able to sharpen pencils, cut pre-printed shapes or find items for a display, and check for dead craft supplies. Youth Volunteers might be able to create ideas for programs, help with organizing or categorizing something, decorate your space, or help prepare for a big event. A Program Volunteer would be late high school students–basically like an internship: you could have them run part of a program (I had a senior run Kid Book Club for a while at the same time as my Tween Book Club), learn how to manage sections of your organization (like being a team captain or chorus secretary), and help to take care of adult volunteer tasks, such as neatly organizing displays (like putting stickers on books, organizing a trophy case, or curating their own display case) or doing inventory.
3. Develop a training plan and reporting system to track each volunteer’s progress and hours.
This sounds like a big deal, but it really isn’t. Simply look at the tasks you are willing to assign to a volunteer level and make sure that you break each task down into its component parts. Before you ask a person to do a task, make sure they know how to do it, either by having them show you the process on their own or by going through your training steps for the task. I recommend having a training folder (based on your organization’s SOPM) for each level so that anyone can train a new volunteer, and so that volunteers have a place to go if they don’t remember how to do something before they ask you!
4. Train for and expect professional behavior.
Children and young adults love to feel grown up, but they honestly have no idea how to illicit that reaction, most of the time. We have to help them grow into their professional selves even if they are volunteering 30 minutes a week at their local tumble gym. This means: punctuality, responsibility, accountability, and follow-through. If they aren’t on time, they need to account for their absence or tardiness by calling (not having their parents call). If they are asked to complete a task, they need to be responsible enough to handle that task on their own or be given a different task. If they want to be given certain higher level tasks, they must show the follow-through necessary to complete the lower level tasks they have been assigned. These are simple concepts that most adults take for granted, but we want our volunteers to succeed and be helpful!
5. Enjoy the fact that you are probably grooming the next generation of professionals in your field.
As I mentioned before, because I was given the opportunity to volunteer in my school library, I then felt empowered to ask for higher level positions within libraries so that by the time I left college, I understood how to work in one well enough to advance to Assistant Director level without a Masters in Library Science. Would that have worked in a huge library? No, but if I decide to go back to school at some point, I now have the experience necessary to apply for those higher level positions within a library. I also have a deep respect for libraries, and love attending as many programs as I can for adults (and will do so with my children) simply because it was instilled in me by the librarians wanting me there when I was 11 years old. It’s amazing how empowering and inspiring we can be just by using the words, “yes, you can help!”