In the town where I work, sixth graders are “strongly encouraged” by the middle school to do ten hours of community service each school year. There aren’t many volunteer opportunities for kids that young, so we get a LOT of requests from potential volunteers. My library has a separate volunteer program for older teens and adults, but because the middle schoolers have a limited skill set and require a lot of direction, the Children’s Room handles their community service.
For years, we accepted one volunteer each weekday, for one hour a day. When I took this position a year ago, that model had stopped working for us. We were scrambling to find things for the kids to do that didn’t 1) have a steep learning curve or 2) require constant supervision*, since this was happening after school when we’re spread thin between doing programs and covering our busy desk. And the slots would fill up quickly and we’d have to turn kids away. And let’s be real: what we had the kids doing was often busy work and they were bored.
This school year we wanted to make this more win-win. Maybe there was a way for the kids to do things that are actually helpful to us and it could be more meaningful and FUN for them.
Presenting: our newly revamped middle school volunteer program!
What we’re trying out this fall is having the kids sign up for a three-week session of two-hour time blocks (for example, three consecutive Mondays from 3-5pm). We’re accepting up to six kids per session. By having them come in in groups, we’re able to:
- give them bigger projects
- have projects that continue from week to week
- take time to prepare for a once a week program, as opposed to looking for tasks every day
- sign up more kids, turning fewer away
- only have kids come on days we’re well-staffed (so one person can act as the coordinator)
There are a couple downsides to the new plan. We’re still not able to accommodate every possible volunteer’s schedule, it requires a lot of coordinating on our end, and it requires more organization for us. But the positives make it a worthwhile tradeoff.
We’ve just gotten started, so we’ll probably be tweaking this model over the school year, but so far I’m super happy with the changes we’ve made. The first project volunteers did was a book review bulletin board that they did entirely themselves. We showed them the die-cut machine, gave them review forms, suggested a couple theme/wording ideas and let them loose. And they worked well together and seemed to have a good time! Next up, we’ll have them create a craft program for younger kids; they’ll prepare it one week and run it the next week. As I come up with ideas for projects, I add them to a running list that we’ll hopefully work through this fall.
Are there other libraries out there who have volunteers as young as 11? I’d love to hear about what you do with them!
*My favorite sixth-grade volunteer story from last year, which illustrates well how much supervision they can need: a volunteer, who was supposed to be helping prepare a craft for storytime, wandered away, sat at a table in the Children’s Room, and started reading a Harry Potter book. When a staff member asked what he was doing, he said “I’m reading!!” He didn’t even realize that it wasn’t appropriate.