Written by Kristin Larmore, Relate Intern
(photo from eastchesterlibrary.org)
How often do you volunteer in your community?
Once a week…..once a month…..once a year? Never?
Have you ever decided not to volunteer because you thought you were too young and couldn’t make a difference? Well, that’s absolutely not true. Senior Simone Bernstein at Clayton High School in St. Louis was frustrated with a lack of opportunities for those under 18, so she started a website geared specifically toward teens in her area.
It’s called stlouisvolunteen.com, and it’s a goldmine of opportunities for kids between the ages of 12 and 17. It’s in age order, starting with an opportunity for kids as young as 10, moving down through younger teens all the way to things like the Missouri History Museum and Wildbird Rehabilitation for 16 and 17-year-olds.
I was lucky enough to get a quick interview with the passionate Simone, who wants nothing more than to make a difference in her community and encourage others to do it, too.
RelateMag: To you, what are the main reasons teens probably decide not to volunteer?
Simone: I think many teens find they don’t have a lot of time on their hands, and I understand that many teenagers have very busy lives. They have many afterschool activities, they have homework, so it’s hard to find time to volunteer. And it’s also very difficult to find places to volunteer. It took me a long time to find a place that I really enjoyed, and so I looked around and it was hard because there was no website that had a list of places to volunteer….It took a long time and the process is very frustrating if you don’t find a place you really enjoy. I’ve found you really have to be interested in what you do or else you don’t feel like you’re helping out, like you’re wasting your time.
RelateMag: What would you say to teens and younger kids who might be reluctant? How would you encourage them to do this anyway?
Simone: I would tell them that there’s so many benefits to volunteering. It not only helps the organization, but it helps yourself. You learn so much from volunteering. You gain job skills. You learn how to interact with different people. You really learn how to go out of your comfort zone. And I personally live in an area where I don’t deal with underprivileged children all the time, and it’s great to step out of the comfort zone and work with people you wouldn’t normally deal with. You gain so many life skills that you’d never gain otherwise.
RelateMag: Did you contact all these organizations on your own? Did you get any help?
Simone: I did it all on my own. I was taking a class over the summer, the class ended and I didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t feel like I was being productive. I was volunteering five times a week at the DA hospital and the crisis nursery, but then I would get home and it would be 9:00. I decided that I wanted to make a website, so I got online and paid for the domain name and got the support of my parents and I just realized that I needed to get started. And to take off I needed to do anything possible so I contacted all these organizations on my own. I didn’t want a student to go on the website and find information that was old and outdated, and I found after calling many organizations that they don’t update their sites that frequently. I wanted to make it easily accessible for a kid.
RelateMag: Where did you get the idea for stlouisvolunteer.com? Did anyone inspire that?
Simone: I really wanted to help, and it was out of sheer frustration. I really went in and there was no website that had a comprehensive listing for ages 12-17 because most organizations only take kids at 18. I really felt I wanted to make it easy for a kid who went on and had the same problems I did and the challenges that I faced when I went on the Internet at age 12 and tried to find a place to volunteer. You know, if you really want to play an instrument (for example) and you’re really good at it and you enjoy doing that, you should try to find something that matches your interests. You’ll find people that appreciate what you like to do, and it will make it better for everyone involved.
RelateMag: How long have you been volunteering and what other things have you done in the past?
Simone: I started volunteering at age 12 at the local public library, and it was a very simple position. I volunteered before that with my family, but I just didn’t get the same feedback. It was better for me to volunteer on my own and really get a sense of what I thought, how I interacted with kids on my own. After that, I started volunteering at the Magic House at age 13 and you deal with kids and make sure they’re safe. And that was a really cool position. I did that on Saturdays throughout the year every time. At 14, I started volunteering at the crisis nursery and I’m a member of the junior board there. You deal with underpriveledged kids all across the area who are either homeless or their parents are in need of someone to take care of them; they’re a 24-hour crisis center in St. Louis. I feel it influenced me the most. I got a feel of other people and the community around me. So I gained a sense of accomplishment. Then I started to volunteer at the DA hospital in the GI lab and there I dealt with war veterans and it was cool to hear their experiences through war and what they accomplished through their life. Even though they were coming in for a simple procedure like a colonoscopy, all they wanted to do was talk….I also started to volunteer at a hospital in East St. Louis that deals with families who are Medicaid and Medicare.
RelateMag: What is your favorite pastime when you’re not volunteering?
Simone: I really enjoy running. Running is a great way for me to lose all the stress and deal with my homework. Luckily, I’m going to be the captain of my cross-country and track team, so I like to spend time with the community and do team-bonding activities and support everyone… I really try to balance everything out, do a little bit of everything before I go off and have to do everything on my own before I’m in college.
RelateMag: Do you expect growth of the site in the next few years, or do you plan to keep it fairly simple and local?
Simone: Luckily, I’ve been getting very positive feedback from it, and people saw it on the news. A lot of organizations have been calling me and emailing me. In the end, it would be great if it became national. That’s such a high goal for me, and I would love if there was a teen that really was dedicated and hard-working. I would love them to decide to do it in their own city…There’s so many goals I have for the future, but I’m just looking at today and tomorrow and seeing if I can make it on my own and responding to emails just because I can and trying to update the website. I’ve never written a grant in my life. I’ve never made a website in my life. It’s a step-by-step process for me.
Visit stlouisvolunteen.com today and start making a difference!
Have you ever considered starting something like this in your own city? You’d be surprised how many organizations might be receptive to your kind offering. Think about reaching out.
Tell us about your favorite volunteer opportunities in your town.