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What It's Like To Volunteer With Your Teen on the Streets

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

As a parent, involving my kids in acts of volunteerism has always been a goal of mine. However, there are certain seasons of life that simply lend themselves to this much more easily than others. It was difficult when we were struggling to manage diapers, strollers, wandering preschoolers, or naptimes (and usually some combination of all the above). Over the years, we’ve sought out opportunities that fit with our availability and were developmentally appropriate for my three boys. It hasn’t always been easy. Many places do not allow children to volunteer for liability reasons, or if they do, they are often limited to roles that do not feel engaging and make it hard for kids to get excited about giving back. However, now that I have a teen and preteen, we are finally entering a phase in which volunteerism can take on some real meaning for both my kids and me, and we are able to engage in it on a whole new level.

When I started working for The Human Impact as their Storyteller, I knew quickly that I wanted to involve my boys in the agency’s mission of befriending and building relationships with those in the chronically homeless community. I loved that the organization offered an open time each week for volunteers of all ages to come and walk the streets with their staff and get to know some of their unhoused neighbors on the streets. As soon as school was out and schedules lined up, I got us (and a friend) signed up for this experience, also known as Streets Time. At 12 and 13, I knew they could handle the experience, but I also knew that it would push them in a lot of ways. At least, it was my hope that it would. I wanted it to force them to ask questions and think about things differently, to cause them to confront some of the things they thought they knew (which at 12 and 13 is pretty much everything), and practice some of the skills we had hopefully instilled in them as parents. It did all that, and more.

Volunteering with The Human Impact during Streets Time is different than most traditional volunteer experiences in that it is entirely relational (vs. transactional). This means that you are not offering a specific good or service (like food or help with housing) but instead, you are focused on making a genuine human connection and forming the basis of a relationship. While both are equally important, relational volunteerism often feels more challenging, especially for teens. For my boys, it seemed easiest to explain it like this… people who are homeless often say that they can go days or even weeks without anyone acknowledging them. That can feel lonely and like nobody really sees you or cares that you are here. We have only one job today, and that is to make someone on the streets feel less alone. That can be with a smile or a wave, or by having a whole conversation and getting to know them a little. Either way, if we make one person feel a little less lonely, then we’ve done what we came for.

Having a goal in mind seemed to help ease some of the pressure of knowing what to do once they were on the street, and we ran through a couple of basic topic ideas they could go to if they needed something to talk about when they met someone. I’ll talk more about this in a follow-up post along with other tips for a successful experience on the streets.

We met up with my co-workers and the other volunteers. After a round of introductions, we hit the streets. We quickly ran into Dale and Cathy, a couple hanging out under one of the overpasses that we regularly visit. They were both happy to have visitors and were glad to meet the boys as well as the other volunteers. As an organization, The Human Impact, has built a relationship with both Dale and Cathy. I personally have interacted with them on the streets many times, as have all of our Advocates. Anyone taking volunteers out that day would have had an idea of what to expect from them. They are generally pleasant and willing to talk. What was different however was the way Dale held himself and the authority with which he shared his experiences and stories while he chatted with teenagers. Simply because the power dynamic was slightly different than it usually was because the age of his “audience” was different, Dale seemed more empowered to share about who he was. What he had to contribute, what advice and lessons he had accumulated in life had value and were worth passing on to others. There was something about having the undivided attention of this age group, maybe because it’s rare and hard to get. If you have teens, you can probably relate.

As we said our good-byes and moved on, Dale walked with us a way and continued to chat, a clear sign that our visit with him had had the intended purpose of making a connection and making someone feel seen. We moved on and said hello to several other people along our route. We stopped to chat briefly with a man outside a shelter. He shared with us his story. He became homeless after losing his chef job during COVID. He talked about living in the shelter and the process of trying to put his life back together and find housing. He talked about brussels sprout recipes and promised the boys that once he got back on his feet, he could make some that even the most die-hard non-veggie eaters would love. He served as a reminder that homelessness affects people from an array of backgrounds and for an array or reasons.

Our visit ended with a stop at “The Fraternity”, a group we know well who camps under a bridge near our office. The boys and other volunteers met several of our friends and were welcomed with open arms. They talked sports. They asked what activities they were into. They joked around. Byron, one of our friends at this stop, gave my son $5 to get himself a snack on the way home later. My son tried to respectfully refuse it until I told him it was ok, and he could accept it. As we started our walk back, I took the opportunity to explain my reasoning to him. I explained that Byron often gives small gifts, snacks, or treats to the volunteers that visit him. Particularly the ones we bring, or the ones he has built a relationship with. Him giving my son that $5 bill was quite the honor. It was Byron’s way of saying thank you for visiting him. It was his way of giving back, and my son accepting it was important because its value was so much more than $5. It was a way to honor and show respect for the relationship we had built with Byron. It was an acknowledgement that our friendship went both ways. It was also a lesson in unexpected generosity and kindness that I am grateful to Byron for helping to instill in my son.

We and the other volunteers finished up our route and briefly debriefed about the experience. The kids I had brought were not the only teens that day; a 16-year-old girl was also volunteering with her dad. All said similar things about being surprised that the people they encountered were so friendly and willing to talk and share.

We went to lunch after our time volunteering and gratefully used Byron’s $5 towards the cost of our burgers and fries. We talked through some of the things we’d seen and experienced. It’s been several weeks now, and we are still reflecting on the experience. As a parent, I see so much value in this type of volunteering with your preteen or teen. They are at a pivotal age in which they can truly give as much as they take from this experience. For the people they meet on the streets, having someone listen to them and acknowledge their value and existence as people can be incredibly validating. For many however, they have been made to feel less than for so long that being met with even the most well-intentioned group of adult volunteers can feel overwhelming. Often, the people who approach them on the streets may have a very specific purpose. This is usually meant to be helpful, but nonetheless it almost always comes from a place of authority. Teens, just because they are not adults, can instantly put some of that unease to rest. They allow our friends on the street to step into the role of the expert more naturally than in a conversation between adults. They allow our friends to let their guards down some. It feels good to be cared about and seen by the next generation. It feels good to feel that when you speak you are heard by someone who will outlive you and hopefully carry some of your words with them.

Unlike many immersive volunteer experiences, our goal with Streets Time is not that volunteers, teens especially, come away from it feeling that they have seen how “others” live and are now particularly grateful for the things they have in their lives. While yes, this is a normal feeling, it is not the end goal. The main takeaway we hope everyone walks away with is not how good/bad anyone else has it. It’s certainly not meant to serve as a lesson in gratitude for the spoiled adolescent. It is in fact the opposite. We hope that they walk away with a sense of connection to the people on the street. We hope they know someone’s name when they drive away and remember it when they tell a friend about them later. We hope that when they reflect on the experience, they ultimately feel more connected to those living on the streets. We hope that they see less of a contrast between what they each have and don’t have and more of a connection between who they each are – human beings. We believe that this is in fact the best lesson that volunteering can offer to kids at this age, to most of us at any age.

My boys have already been back and participated in some other volunteer experiences with The Human Impact. It’s been an overall positive and fun undertaking to introduce them to the work and people I love so much. However, that is not to say that it isn’t challenging, and it doesn’t come without it’s hard and uncomfortable parts. Look out for more info soon on the practical side of volunteering with preteens and teens…from what shoes to wear, to how to answer some of those tricky questions that can (and will) come up.

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