News & Politics

Lending a Hand

Young people who give their time and talents as volunteers—on the Gulf Coast, in New Mexico, or around Washington—discover emotional rewards and memorable experiences.

“Teens can move mountains,” says Kathleen Johnson, a director of volunteers for the Mississippi group Katrina Relief.

That has proven true in the Gulf Coast, where young people are helping lead the charge of volunteers who have gone to the area since hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2004. Of the 10,000 volunteers who have worked with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in New Orleans since last March, 2,000 were high-school and college students. Hundreds more have volunteered through similar programs.

Rochelle Odon, a student at Howard University, traveled to New Orleans for a summer of volunteering last year through Operation Reach’s Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps. The organization recruited college students to put on a camp for kids whose usual summer programs were cancelled in the wake of the floods.

“New Orleans is like home for me,” says Odon, an Ohio native who spent four years at Xavier University of Louisiana. She was drawn into service out of a desire to provide a similar sense of home to the children who’d had their lives turned upside down, including many who had to move temporarily to other cities.

“Because they are kids, they felt like they hadn’t been given a chance to express themselves about how they’ve been affected by the hurricanes,” Odon says. “They had felt outcast, but at camp they felt at home; it was a place where they weren’t made fun of for ‘talking funny’ because they’re from New Orleans.”

The nation’s new push for volunteerism—prompted recently by the outpouring of help in the Gulf Coast and previously by programs like AmeriCorps and the USA Freedom Corps—has trickled down to younger people. For some teens it’s a sense of duty; others are partly motivated because volunteer experience is a big plus for scholarships, college admissions, and résumés. Many area high schools require community-service hours for graduation.

Summers afford students the best opportunity to commit to volunteering locally or traveling to a disaster-stricken area such as the Gulf Coast.

At the camp where Odon worked, based in a church in uptown New Orleans, she taught visual arts and drama classes, took her students on a field trip to the aquarium, and led them in service projects like planting flowers and painting a mural that represented each student’s idea of community.

Odon received a $1,200 stipend that covered her travel to and from the Crescent City and stayed in Xavier University dorms. Meals and transportation to the camp were covered by Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps. Though she and other volunteers had comfortable accommodations, it was eye-opening to see the hardships of the city’s residents.

“You have to be there to really see it,” she says. “Some areas are the worst disasters I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like night and day in the city.”

One of her most vivid memories is from the last day of the program: “All of them—even the eighth-grade boys who gave us a hard time—were crying and hugging and thanking us. It was the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.”

New Orleans Habitat for Humanity volunteer coordinator Melissa Manuselis says that feeling of fulfillment is part of the reward of giving time and energy. “Volunteers walk away with a huge sense of personal empowerment,” she says. “They don’t just build houses—they build relationships.”

Manuselis says that even 17 months after the hurricanes, there remain plenty of projects: “Our vision for rebuilding New Orleans is a 20-year plan.”

Here are volunteering opportunities in the Gulf Coast. Some organizations accept individuals; others coordinate groups that have already been formed by the volunteers themselves. Volunteers often pay some travel and housing costs, but the organizations will help make arrangements and subsidize the expenses. Many also offer youth activities that make learning and fun part of the experience.

Gulfsouth Youth Action Corps, 504-529-1922; This service corps of college students is rebuilding youth-enrichment programs in New Orleans. Corps members commit to a summer of service engaging with and inspiring local youth.

New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, 504-861-2077; Habitat coordinates volunteers age 16 and up for homebuilding projects around the area. Volunteers typically work for a week, but any time commitment is accepted.

Those age 16 or 17 need an adult chaperon for every eight youth. Volunteers often organize their own group before signing up. Volunteers must supply their own lodging and transportation to and from work sites. Camp Hope in Violet, Louisiana, houses volunteers for $100 a week (504-682-9154; The converted elementary school offers gender-segregated rooms with cots and air-conditioning, showers, three meals a day, and activities like talent shows. Alternatively, Habitat for Humanity volunteers often can get discounts at area hotels.

Katrina Relief, the Waveland Citizens Fund, 228-209-8822 or 228-466-4630 (contact Kathleen Johnson); In Hancock County, one of the southernmost counties in Mississippi and home to the cities Waveland and Bay St. Louis, more than 9,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes.

Volunteers ages 16 and up do work ranging from gutting houses to painting and putting up drywall. Housing is provided for $10 a day, and for $20 a day volunteers get Louisiana-style meals prepared by a retired chef from the French Quarter. For large groups, Katrina Relief will provide a school bus and driver.

Community Collaborations International’s “Alternative Break,” 212-208-2522 (Steven Boisvert); This group handles logistics for groups of five or more volunteers age 18 and up. The organization places volunteers where they are most needed—it is now assigning people to Hancock County and New Orleans.

Food, lodging, tools, and local transportation are provided for $20 to $35 a day. Volunteers must book and pay for their own flights.

To better prepare, volunteers can take free basic construction classes before their trip at stores like Home Depot or Lowes so that they will know about hanging and finishing dry wall, removing mold, and planting trees. While the work primarily focuses on homebuilding, there are opportunities to work with local groups like animal shelters, old-age homes, and Boys & Girls Clubs.

At night, volunteers can watch documentary movies about residents’ hardships, and locals come to speak about what they’ve been through.

Emergency Communities, 504-428-5016; (Laura Paul); For residents still living out of FEMA trailers or working on their gutted homes, this organization provides a central place to eat, do laundry, and care for children. Emergency Communities is operating two centers in Louisiana.

Volunteers under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. The only cost is airfare to New Orleans; the group will arrange transportation to and from the airport, and all volunteers stay in the building where they work. The sites provide three meals a day, showers, bathrooms, and Internet access. Work includes gutting homes, cleaning, preparing and serving meals, caring for children, and doing inventory. Activities like movie nights, live music and dinners, and group excursions around the city are arranged.

Beyond volunteering on the Gulf Coast, several Washington organizations and schools offer youth volunteer opportunities, some of which also include travel.

Sidwell Summer, 3825 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-537-8133; Sidwell’s Community Service Programs teach students in grades six through ten skills while they volunteer. Students can provide babysitting services, do environmental cleanup in parks, work with nonprofits like nursing homes or homeless shelters, or do career-related tasks in healthcare, law, social service, or technology. Six one-week sessions June 18 through August 3; $250 a week.

In the Counselor Assistant Program, volunteers in grades eight through ten help with the day-to-day running of Sidwell’s summer camps while they learn leadership skills. Three two-week sessions June 18 through August 3; $300 to $425.

Flint Hill School, summer in New Mexico with Habitat for Humanity, 703-242-2392; This Oakton school takes a group of rising 9th- through 12th-graders to Taos, New Mexico, from June 6 to 16 to build a home in an impoverished area. Students receive three meals a day and stay in an air-conditioned hotel. The trip includes activities like whitewater rafting and horseback riding. Cost is $1,100 plus airfare.

Discovery Creek Summer Nature Adventure Camp, 202-337-5111 (Elizabeth Wilkie); High-school students between 13 and 17 can gain leadership and team-building experience working with campers ages 4 to 11 at Discovery Creek from mid-June to late August. Volunteers will help with outdoor activities like swimming, biking, hiking, and canoeing at camps around Washington.

Camp Lighthouse Day Camp and Camp Lighthouse Technology Camp, 202-454-6422 (Jocelyn Hunter); Lighthouse for the Blind will match volunteers with a child age 6 to 12 who is blind or visually impaired to help him or her during Camp Lighthouse activities that can include swimming, arts and crafts, sports, computer activities, and field trips from July 9 to July 20.

The Camp Lighthouse Technology Camp (July 30 to August 10) is similar: Volunteers are matched one-on-one with campers to help them learn about new computer programs and hardware and to improve their technology-assisted communication skills. Volunteers must be at least 16 and must attend training.

Special Olympics DC Summer Games & Unified Sports, 202-408-2640; Teens can help out at the Special Olympics Summer Games on May 22, 23, and 24 at Catholic University. Volunteers 14 and up can count on working six hours a day beginning at 8:30, doing everything from running sports events, escorting athletes, and helping at awards ceremonies.

Teens can also volunteer for the Special Olympics Unified Sports later in the summer. Volunteers are placed on athletic teams with Special Olympics athletes and play one game a week for four weeks.

Arlington Food Assistance Center, 703-845-8486 (Nancy Cude); This group that distributes groceries to needy Arlington families needs teens age 14 to 18 to work summer weekday mornings doing a variety of tasks including working at the sign-in desk, acting as a shopping assistant to help clients buy food, setting up distribution, and repackaging and sorting food.

DC Central Kitchen, 202-234-0707 ext. 108; Volunteers can help prepare meals seven days a week, do outreach to the homeless, and serve breakfast at two outdoor locations or with a mobile unit. Monday through Friday, lunch is given to volunteers after they cook and serve breakfast.

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.