Trusting teen volunteers with leadership – would you?

WA Co Oregon sheriff logoI love it when an organization’s representative says that the reason they involve volunteers for particular tasks is “because volunteers are the best people for those tasks.” Not because of the myth that volunteers are “free” and “save money.”

But it’s so rare that I hear anyone say that.

I had one of these rare moments recently at the Washington County, Oregon Sheriff’s citizens academy, when the topic of the Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team was discussed in detail. The positions on the sheriff’s primary search and rescue team are reserved for teen volunteers. You read that right: THESE POSITIONS ARE RESERVED FOR TEEN VOLUNTEERS. Not paid adults, not reserve deputies – TEEN VOLUNTEERS. This team is the PRIMARY search and rescue team for this area – not an auxiliary. The search and rescue team looks for (and finds!) lost people, downed aircraft, evidence in major crimes, and more. The members are highly trained and particularly-trained. They must be 14 to 19 years old, meet all of the minimum requirements, complete the intensive training academy, and make a minimum 2-year commitment.hey “age out” of the program in December following their 21st birthday.

So why is such an important, essential, life-saving, high-responsibility investigative program reserved for teen volunteers? I asked the organizer during the presentation. His reply, according to my notes, “Because they will do absolutely anything. They will get down on their hands and knees, side by side, and slowly crawl across a football field in cold weather, literally with their noses to the ground, looking for a bullet casing linked to a crime. They will thoroughly search an area with young, sharp eyes. They will come when called, even when it’s 3 a.m., and get right to work, and they will follow directions exactly – and in this work, they MUST follow their directions and training exactly. Because we can absolutely rely on them.”

Yes, of course there are older people that could be just as committed… I hear those “we shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations about different age groups!” thoughts out there, I do. And I’m sure there are other reasons that these teens make such great volunteers – because they don’t have family commitments, they don’t have job commitments, they have the flexibility and support to do these intensive activities, they aren’t plagued by the physical constraints that many of us older folks are (I can’t barely get up off the ground anymore, let alone crawl across such), and on and on.

But consider how refreshing it is to hear someone talk this way about teenagers. In all of my time working in volunteer management research and consulting – two decades – I have never heard anyone say that teenagers were the best people for a particular volunteering role. I’ve just heard over and over why teens cannot do this or that, or shouldn’t do this or that, why older volunteers don’t want to work with them, how they don’t take their commitment seriously, and on and on and on.

If the Washington County Sheriff’s Department thinks so highly of teen volunteers, and you don’t… if they are having such great success with teen volunteers in such high responsibility roles and you aren’t… what is it that they might be doing that you aren’t?

2 thoughts on “Trusting teen volunteers with leadership – would you?

  1. Robbin Lyons

    I totally agree in the value of teen volunteers! We have a teen advisory counsel -they have one vote one our board. We believe in training future leaders. I will tell you that they only have one vote and can have one of three of their group leaders attend out board meetings-but all three always show up. They come up with their own fund raising efforts and act as volunteer chairs for events. They are highly dependable and a lot of fun. We depend on our teens and value them as volunteers.

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