Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hands-On Service Projects

While service is such an important part of the Girl Scout program, it's also been one of the harder pieces to incorporate into our troop.

In our community, there are no shortage of nonprofit organizations doing amazing work. But finding ones that are willing and able to effectively engage with "young helpers" is more difficult. As someone who has worked on the nonprofit side, I totally get it. Working with young volunteers can be fraught with challenges, from safety and liability issues to client confidentiality to a simple lack of age-appropriate activities.

So when I do find organizations and program that offer hands-on service opportunities, it makes me all the more appreciative. Here are a few that we've had great success with in the past, and a couple we're looking forward to doing in the future. While all of these are local to us (St. Louis, MO), I imagine similar opportunities exist in many communities.

1) Visiting residents at a retirement community or nursing home. We are fortunate enough to meet at a school that is right next to a retirement home, so this is one of the first activities we did with our Brownies. The opportunities for service here are endless,but I would recommend contacting the facility's manager or activity director first before making plans. They can help steer you in the right direction in terms of best time/day to visit, what activities are most popular, ability levels of residents, what to expect, etc.

For example, while we had initially talked about Christmas caroling at the center, the director suggested focusing on another holiday when fewer groups usually came. As a result, we made Thanksgiving table centerpieces and delivered them during a meeting, followed by singing a few songs and visiting with residents. We've also taken troops over for a Trick-or-Treating event at the center. But you certainly don't have to wait for a holiday or special occasion - most residents love to see the girls any time of year, and all the better if you make plans to visit on a regular basis.

2) Sorting/boxing food at St. Louis Area Foodbank. I imagine many food pantries will work with young volunteers, but I have to give a big shout-out to this organization. I've done shifts there with both my troop and a team at work, and found it to be a really well-run operation - and a lot of fun. You usually sign up for a 3-4 hour shift, and after a nice tour/overview, they put you to work on an assembly line of sorts. Due to the sheer volume of food they deal with, there is always plenty to do, there are jobs for every age and ability level, directions are clear and there is little downtime. And at the end, they usually tell you just how many pounds of food you helped pack and how many clients will benefit, which is a great way to connect participants with an outcome. The hardest part is finding a free shift (Saturdays go months in advance), but as I said, there are likely other organizations doing similar great work.

3) Preparing meals/snacks for the homeless clients of St. Patrick Center. In addition to providing service, this can be a great tie-in to one of the cooking or nutrition-related badges. As part of an overnight, our troop made homemade granola bars, PB&J sandwiches, bran muffins and cookies and bagged them up for the Center, which distributes them to clients during outreach and between meals. This can be a good opportunity to discuss the issue of homelessness with girls, even before they're of an age where they can directly serve at a shelter.

4) Cook a meal for the families at a Ronald McDonald House. I've done this before, but not with our troop, so it's one we're looking forward to tackling this year. Pretty straightforward - you sign up for a meal and then bring all the food to prepare on-site in the house kitchen. This is another good one for girls working on a cooking badge, and a good opportunity for a budgeting/shopping lesson.

5) Service days at Girl Scout camp. We'll be participating in a fall clean-up day at one of our Council camps in a few weeks; projects usually range from giving the lodges a thorough cleaning to painting picnic benches to trail maintenance. Even if your Council does not host a clean-up event, you can usually contact the camp ranger to find out if there are projects your troop can tackle during a visit. Or, check with your Conservation Department and local environmental organizations to find out if there are stream or park clean-ups scheduled.

What service projects have been the most meaningful for your troop?

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