Put yourself out there.
Once you have a general idea of what you want to do, the next step is finding an organization that is looking for help. An easy way to find them is just by Googling “your city” + “youth volunteer.” Look for websites that end in .gov or .org. If an organization’s site gives you a bad vibe, research it to make sure it’s legit: Do they require you to pay money to volunteer? THIS IS A BAD SIGN. Does the organization involve raising money in some way, but you are unsure about how the money is used? Google that shit!
The Americans and Canadians among you can refer to the National Charity Report Index. Community centers, public libraries, religious establishments, and your very own high school guidance counselor are all good IRL outlets for information on organizations that are looking for help.
The application process for every organization is different. Usually, there will be information about how this goes on their websites, but a lot of smaller charities might not have the resources to maintain a slick web presence. In these cases, a phone call can go a long way (or you can do what I did in high school and just show up). Some places might not have even considered seeking outside volunteer help because they didn’t know there were people willing! You could be their very first volunteer. Just look at you, blazing trails!
Many places will ask to interview you after you apply. This will be like a regular job interview, most likely, and is good practice for any of those you might be forced to endure in the future. Be prepared for the usual questions: Why do you want to work with this particular organization? (That’s a good question to think about regardless of an interview.) What are your hobbies or interests? Describe a specific moment when you assumed a leadership role/solved a problem/worked well with others to complete a common goal. And you should be interviewing them, too! Ask what sort of time commitment is expected from you, what your specific responsibilities will be, and which projects your work will benefit. In some cases, you’ll need to find out if you’ll be required to provide a police/background check (these are common if you are over 18 and working with children). If you’re planning to work a full-day event, find out if the organization will cover your food and transportation.
Depending on where you work, the process can be as simple as showing up one day, willing and able, or as convoluted as the seven-month-long process I underwent to become a Big Sister, which involved a written application, three references (written and phone), a background check, a 90-minute assessment interview, and a two-hour training session. Which was exhausting, until I remembered they wanted to TRUST ME WITH A SMALL VULNERABLE CHILD and had every reason to make sure I wasn’t a creepy rando. Plus, there was free pizza at the training session.
You can go your own way.
Hypothetical situation: You care about the environment, and you live in a town where the local park is covered in litter, but the city doesn’t seem to give a shit, and the trash isn’t going anywhere. Do you curse your neighbors for the sheer contempt they show Mother Earth, who has done nothing but PROVIDE THEM WITH SUNSHINE AND OXYGEN? Or do you channel your inner Leslie Knope, recruit your friends, grab a pair of rubber gloves and a plastic bag, and spend a Saturday that would otherwise be spent watching a Dr. Phil marathon gussying up the park? Take matters into your own helping hands!!
MANDATORY DISCLAIMER TO PROTECT YOU FROM JERKS: Check your local bylaws to make sure your guerrilla volunteering isn’t going to land you in hot water, and make sure you’re not technically trespassing on private property or interfering with programs already in place. Also: Your safety is so friggin’ important. I know you probably aren’t going to start cleaning up medical waste at that abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, where a teenage volunteer JUST LIKE YOU was murdered 13 years ago tonight, but, man, it is so easy to get carried away once you’re on a do-gooder roll.
There are a lot of gross problems in the world about which nothing is being done. Realistically, you probably aren’t going to solve every injustice, everywhere on the planet and still make it home in time for Jeopardy! But if you have the means, doing something, no matter how small, feels a whole lot better than doing nothing. And starting small = a great way to keep that commitment going. After all, every organization (no matter how major) and every activist, no matter how industrious, had to start SOMEWHERE. Maybe your “somewhere” is playing with cats, getting involved with a music festival, or hanging out in a sunny park all day—all awesome things that I’d want to do anyway, but even more so when you factor in the idea of GIVIN’ BACK!
I know I sound high-school-guidance-counselor-y, but I speak from real experience! Volunteering can lay the foundation for so many great things, and I’m not just talking about free snacks at orientation sessions. If I hadn’t decided to get involved in high school, all of my pent-up rage-y feelings against the world would have kept building and building until I exploded in a pile of gnarly confetti. All things considered, volunteering was probably the better solution, and I bet you’ll love it, too. ♦