Community service programs have risen in popularity, chiefly in response to high school requirements for community service hours. As a teen summer trip advisor, I am often asked, "why should I pay to have my teen do community service?" It is a good question, since many kids stay home and perform work in their own communities. However, it is like asking whether day camp has as much impact as a quality overnight camp.
The experiences that teens have when they step outside the comforts of home, work alongside others who are less fortunate, immerse themselves in a foreign culture - be it in Louisiana or halfway around the world - are much deeper and more meaningful than staying around town for the summer. If you are looking for a return on your "investment" from your teen's summer experience, a well-organized community service program may just be the best investment you could make.
When you hear the words community service, perhaps you conjure up images of the Peace Corps. And, while some summer community service programs adhere to this 1960's model, others have become more diverse. Most teen programs today offer some service component, but the focus varies dramatically - from the design of the program, to the type of work performed, to living accommodations. If you are researching this type of experience for your teen, it is important to look at recent trends in order to pick the right program for your child.
Mission or Focus
. The "original mission" of the program generally guides how many hours will be spent doing community service and what the participants will do in their free time. The "hard core" service programs usually choose a central project that the participants can see through to completion. Teens live with host families for at least part of their time away and spend less time on adventure activities and travel. It is important to decide whether service, language or adventure travel is the primary goal for your teen. This can help guide you toward a particular trip. Many programs offer a balance of all three, giving the parent more "bang" for the buck.
. Most community service projects were traditionally reserved for older high school students, but recently there has been a demand for programs for younger "tweeners." Today, it is not uncommon to find a service program in Costa Rica for kids finishing seventh grade or a marine conservation program in the British Virgin Islands for eighth graders. There are even 2-week travel programs in Alaska or Hawaii with a service component for kids as young as fifth grade, as well as family service adventures where parents can bring children as young as nine. These programs can spark a passion in your children early for service that may guide them throughout their high school and college careers.
. While there are still plenty of traditionally structured programs, others give teens a "taste" of several different projects. Your teen may work to improve a schoolhouse or assist in a day-care program in a poor village in Costa Rica, then the next week move to another location to assist in ecological studies to protect the Rain Forest. In the United States, there are even programs where students perform their community service work during the day, then return to a college dorm room where they spend evening hours and weekends engaged in activities with other high school students studying on campus.
Type of work
. The work within programs varies greatly: from work with animals and children, to construction or ecology projects (be sure to check with your school coordinator, however, to determine if the project meets your schools requirements.) Some programs work with established organizations, like Habitat for Humanity or Easter Seals, while other programs work in collaboration with the natives of the region as a response to their needs and desires. Conservation programs are also gaining popularity as our environmental needs warrant it and as our youth feel the weight of this responsibility. Whatever the project, the opportunities abound for language learning and cross-cultural experiences!
. Where participants stay is one of the biggest determinants for a teenager when choosing a program. Will they stay in tents, hostels and dorms or will they live with a host family? For some, a home-stay with a host family can be the most rewarding part of a summer experience; but for others this can cause the most apprehension. With today's variety, however, there are many alternatives to home stay programs.
. There is a greater awareness of the problems we have right here in the United States and many domestic service programs are now being offered. Your teen could work with Native Americans in the Southwest or work on Katrina Relief in Louisiana. They could work with migrant farm workers in California or on an animal sanctuary in New York. With today's budget constraints in mind, these service programs, lasting anywhere between 2-5 weeks, are often more economical without the added cost of an international flight.
Whatever program you choose, community service can be one of the most rewarding experiences your teen will have.
Tips on Trips and Camps is one of the oldest and largest camp advisory services. Established in 1971, "Tips" has advisors in 16 cities, relationships with over 600 sleep away camps and programs, and each year provides advice and guidance to thousands of families. The service is provided by phone, email and the website which makes it available to anyone virtually anywhere. For more information and advice, to request brochures and DVDs, or to speak to a knowledgeable consultant, visit www.TipsonTripsandCamps.com.