Clark County abounds with volunteer opportunities for teens

Human service requires training and commitment, but libraries, food pantries, special events want you

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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It may be hard for kids to imagine right now, but parents know too well that sweet young dreams of endless summer with nothing to do can turn into a sour reality: Endless summer with nothing to do.

Meanwhile, there's a world of need out there. Local nonprofit agencies and other organizations — such as Clark County and the city of Vancouver — are eager to sign up young people for summer stints making a difference.

"Most people want to volunteer to help other people in their community who may be in need," said Braden Beisse, the regional director of Verified Volunteers. "But some want to meet new people and gain new experiences. And in this job market, finding a summer job or even a post-graduation job is not the easiest thing in the world. Volunteering is a great way to build your résumé, and it can be crucial to getting out there, getting into the job market."

Verified Volunteers is a nonprofit background-check-sharing service that works with volunteer clearinghouses such as Hands On Greater Portland, which is operated by the United Way and includes many Clark County opportunities.

"You'd be surprised" how many nonprofits now routinely ask that prospective volunteers undergo standard criminal background checks, Beisse said. Beyond agencies that serve vulnerable people — such as foster children or the elderly — still others are concerned about the safety of their own staff and other volunteers as well as the security of their property, he said.

Verified Volunteers' "Fast Pass" is a good solution, Beisse said; it allows many nonprofit agencies to share the results of a criminal background check, for free.

"It's just one click for volunteers who have already been screened to share their background checks with other organizations," he said. "We have many über-volunteers who are volunteering with multiple organizations. This saves them a lot of time and money."

The Hands On Greater Portland website is also handy for volunteers, Beisse said, because it can be sorted and searched any number of different ways, including by date, place and type of outing. You can hunt for ongoing, regular commitments or one-time events. Take a look at www.handsonportland.org.

All ages

While volunteerism is a fine idea, finding short-term summer assignments that require little or no training can take some hunting. The closer you get to vulnerable or special-needs people, the higher the bar.

"Most of our opportunities require training, a long-term commitment, and a minimum age of 18," said Stephanie Barr, the volunteer coordinator for the YWCA Clark County, which works with foster children and domestic violence victims.

The Clark County Food Bank "is one of the only volunteer options where no training is required and it's open to any age," executive director Alan Hamilton said on a recent Tuesday night when dozens of volunteers — from schools, religious groups and corporations — were busy sorting food donations into cardboard boxes.

Beyond feeding the hungry, Hamilton said the food bank considers encouraging volunteerism an essential mission. "Let's be a conduit for community involvement," he said. "Let's get kids thinking about why it's important to volunteer."

Another excellent option is libraries. Sherry Braga, volunteer coordinator with the Fort Vancouver Regional Library System, said there's a regular Wednesday afternoon work party at FVRLS headquarters — the former library at 1007 E. Mill Plain, Vancouver — that's perfect for high-schoolers. It involves tasks such as sorting and labeling books, stuffing bags and cutting out pictures for English conversation circles. Just dropping in is OK, although it's always better to confirm ahead of time, Braga said. Email her at volunteer@fvrl.org or call 360-699-8812.

Plus, local library branches are eager to enlist teens to help with summer reading programs. Contact Braga or just walk into your local branch and ask.

Special events

There are two central clearinghouses for adult volunteers in Clark County, both operated by the Human Services Council and both starting with a personal interview that's aimed at ensuring a great match between volunteer and assignment, coordinator Kathy Scott said.

The RSVP program is for volunteers age 55 and up — it stands for Retired and Senior Volunteer Program — while Volunteer Connections is for people ages 18 to 54.

The Human Services Council doesn't work directly with volunteers age 17 and younger, Scott said, but there's plenty to refer them to. HSC receives numerous notices from agencies that need one-time volunteers to staff special events — such as Second Step Housing, which will host its second annual "Run Like A Girl" fundraising outing June 1 and needs 20 volunteers just for that day, she said.

"I think we have 10 different things, 10 special events over the summer, we're looking for volunteers for," Scott said. A special summer event would be a nice fit for a young volunteer or group of volunteering friends who want to do something but don't want to commit to a regular schedule. The same goes for summer outings to do physical labor in Clark County's many parks, trails and green spaces.

"Kids are more likely to do that than 80-year-olds," Scott said, adding that agencies especially love it when friends get together and come forward in groups.

Volunteers 17 and younger can ask HSC for its list of referrals. Take a look at www.hsc-wa.org or call 360-735-3683.

The Columbian runs regular volunteer notices from HSC on Wednesdays in the Life/Neighbors section, under the heading "You Can Help."

Opportunities

Here’s a roundup of Clark County summer volunteer opportunities and resources that might be appropriate for teens. Those younger than 18 may require a signed parental release. Keep in mind that this is a partial list, and there are hundreds of large and small charities and nonprofit groups in Clark County. Try your luck; a polite, positive query will get you further than a wish you never act upon.

Clark County Food Bank: Numerous opportunities, from sorting and repacking food on weekdays and on the second and fourth Tuesday nights of each month to clerical work, groundskeeping, helping with nutrition education and cooking classes, and more. The 78th Street Heritage Farm, which produces thousands of pounds for the food bank every year, is always in need of volunteers, especially on weekends in August and into the fall. Visit www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org/volunteer for the complete list. The food bank’s volunteer coordinator is Kristen Herron at 360-693-0939 or volunteer@clarkcountyfoodbank.org.

Project YOUTH (You Offering Unpaid Time in Honor): Started a few years ago by students at Heritage High School, this group meets the second and fourth Saturday of each month at Vancouver’s historic Old City Cemetery — a frequent target of vandalism — for general maintenance. Next work party: Saturday. Visit www.cityofvancouver.us/cmo/page/volunteer-project-youth-old-city-cemetery or www.facebook.com/pages/Project-YOUTH/122641304575482.

VancouverVolunTEEN: A new program for youth ages 14-19 who want to give back to the community or may need to put in community service hours required by school or a youth group. Work parties meet monthly — except July — on the last Thursday at 3 p.m. at a different location. Today, May 29, it will be at Park Hill Cemetery, 5915 E. Mill Plain Blvd. Register at www.tinyurl.com/signup-volunTEEN or contact AmeriCorps intern Chante Starr at chante.starr@cityofvancouver.us or 360-487-8611.

Child Watch at Marshall Community Center: Care for children, ages 3 months to 10 years old, while parents enjoy the Marshall Center. Open to 16 and older, with a three-month commitment and criminal background check. Weekday mornings and early evenings. For more information, visit www.cityofvancouver.us/parksrec/page/child-watch-volunteers.

Fire Corps: A volunteer program of the Vancouver Fire Department, the organization focuses on educating residents about fire prevention and risk reduction. Open to ages 16 and up with criminal background check and training; 20-hour commitment expected. For more information, visit www.cityofvancouver.us/fire/page/fire-corps.

Hailey Heath: The city of Vancouver’s volunteer coordinator is at 360-487-8316 or hailey.heath@cityofvancouver.us. Heath is the expert on city volunteer opportunities and maintains the website www.cityofvancouver.us/cmo/page/volunteer-programs.

Clark County Parks: The first work party is the morning of June 7 to help this summer with the construction of a new mile-long trail that climbs the west side of Vancouver Lake from the existing park. There will be several other work parties, and many helpers are needed for this entirely volunteer-driven project. There also will be several general-maintenance work parties at Whipple Creek Park, near the Clark County Fairgrounds. The entry point for volunteers with all Clark County park projects are the websites www.clark.wa.gov/publicworks/parks/volunteer.html or www.parkhero.org.

Karen Llewellyn: Clark County’s volunteer coordinator is at 360-397-6118, ext. 1627, or karen.llewellyn@clark.wa.gov.

Share Vancouver: Vancouver’s major nonprofit that tends the hungry and homeless is a popular draw for volunteers of all ages, but officials find it a little complex to plug children younger than 18 into volunteer jobs at Share’s various shelter properties and hot meal sites, according to volunteer coordinator Dellan Redjou. No volunteers younger than 18 ever work at Share House, the downtown men’s shelter.

Other “family shelter” sites have a little more flexibility, Redjou said, but all volunteers still need to pass a criminal background check. Prospective food servers need to view videos posted at www.sharevancouver.org/volunteer.

On other hand, the Share warehouse is always happy to accept groups of kids — especially with adult supervision — for cleaning, sorting and food packing.

“We welcome kids and we try to arrange activities they can do,” Redjou said. “We do have a lot of high school kids who are very interested — but depending on their age, they may have to have their parents with them.”

Please note, parents and kids:

The Humane Society for Southwest Washington: Always a favorite volunteer opportunity for animal-loving youngsters, the Humane Society offers a highly competitive and space-limited Teen Volunteer Program for 15- to 17-year-olds. The application deadline for the summer quarter was April 30. The next application deadline, for the fall quarter, will be in July.

Visit www.southwesthumane.org/teen-volunteers to learn more.