For National Volunteer Week – let’s say thanks to the kids!

National Volunteer Week happens each year, as an opportunity to recognise the diverse passions and talents that each person brings to volunteering.

This years’ theme for National Volunteer Week – ‘Something for Everyone’ – is an invitation to explore the myriad of opportunities available, emphasising that there’s a place for everyone in the world of volunteering!

This year, we would like to pay our special thanks and draw attention to the many children and young people who live in out-of-home care and also actively volunteer their time and energy to improve the system within which they are living and experiencing.

Our office often hears about children and young people in care who undertake multiple volunteering roles such as:

  • Peer Mentoring:  Older children and teens in care often mentor younger ones (sibling, foster siblings or friends or just other kids they know in care), providing guidance, support, and a sense of stability. Their lived experiences make their wisdom and advice invaluable to other children experiencing similar situations.
  • Advocacy and Policy Input:  Many young people in care participate in advisory boards, councils, or focus groups, offering their insights to policymakers and service providers. Their firsthand knowledge, feelings and experiences are invaluable in shaping more effective and compassionate care systems.
  • Public Speaking and Awareness Campaigns:  Some children in care become public speakers, sharing their stories to raise awareness about care experiences. This advocacy can lead to greater public understanding and support for systemic improvements.
  • Program Development:  Children and young people in care often contribute to the development of new programs or the improvement of existing ones. Their feedback helps ensure that services are relevant, effective, and child-centred.
  • Volunteering in Community Projects:  Engaging in community service projects, children in care not only help their communities but also gain a sense of purpose and connection. These activities can range from local clean-up efforts to participating in charitable events.

In giving her thanks to these children and young people, Shona told us:

“It is without a doubt that the contributions of children and young people in care are crucial in fostering a more empathetic, compassionate and responsive care system. Their support and guidance helps us all to create an environment where all children can thrive. It is up to us to take this advice and assistance with grace and humility by acting upon it.”

To promote this amazing work, we’ve put together some considerations and tips about how to ensure ethical engagement with children and young people in out-of-home care who want to contribute their time to volunteering.

1. Acknowledging the work

Acknowledging the contributions of children and young people in out-of-home care is essential for recognising their efforts and encouraging their continued involvement. There are many ways that we can do this – while keeping in mind the importance of promoting safety, wellbeing and inclusion in decisions around how their contributions can be recognised. This includes:

    • Wider Recognition:  Highlight achievements and contributions in newsletters, social media, and at public events. This not only celebrates their efforts but also raises awareness about the positive impact they are making. Children’s privacy and right to privacy is essential, but these can be managed well with a robust and rights-based approach to public commentary involving children in care.
    • Awards and Certificates:  Establish awards or certificates of recognition for children and young people who have made significant contributions. This formal acknowledgment can boost their confidence and show appreciation for their efforts.
    • Personalised Acknowledgment:  Write personalised letters or notes from caregivers, caseworkers, or community leaders expressing gratitude for their contributions. Personal recognition can be very meaningful and fosters important relationships into the future.
    • Involvement in Decision-Making:  Ensure that children who volunteer their time are included in decision-making processes about the care system. This shows that their input is valued and taken seriously.
    • Celebration Events:  Host events or gatherings to celebrate the achievements of children and young people in care. These could include award ceremonies, community dinners, or special outings.
    • Mentorship Opportunities:  Provide opportunities for children and young people to take on leadership roles or mentor others with the support they need to do this. This acknowledges their capabilities and allows them to continue making a positive impact.
    • Media Coverage:  Work with local media to feature stories about the contributions of children in out-of-home care. Positive media coverage can help change public perceptions and highlight the positive role children and young people can play (as mentioned above, strategies to promote children’s rights to privacy is essential in these processes).
    • Educational Opportunities:  Offer scholarships or educational support to those who have contributed significantly. This not only rewards their efforts but also supports their future aspirations.
    • Feedback and Impact Reports:  Share feedback and reports on how their contributions have made a difference. Knowing the impact of their efforts can be very rewarding.
    • Community Partnerships:  Partner with local businesses and organisations to provide discounts, freebies, or special experiences for these children as a token of appreciation for their contributions.

2. Balancing the benefits and the costs of volunteering 

It is also important that we place a balanced lens over the impacts of volunteering for children and young people in out-of-home care.

Whilst their contributions are great and considerable, it can come at a cost – and we must be mindful to ensure that both the positive and not so positive impacts are managed well for their safety and wellbeing.

There are many positive impacts for children and young people, which include:

    • Sense of Purpose:  Volunteering can provide children with a sense of purpose and belonging, helping them to feel valued and important within their community.
    • Skill Development:  Through volunteering, children can develop valuable skills such as leadership, communication, and problem-solving, which can benefit them in many areas of life.
    • Self-Esteem and Confidence:  Successfully contributing to meaningful projects can boost their self-esteem and confidence, reinforcing a positive self-image.
    • Building Relationships:  Volunteering can help children build supportive relationships with peers, mentors, and adults, providing them with a broader support network.
    • Empowerment:  Taking an active role in improving the care system can empower children, giving them a sense of control and influence over their circumstances.
    • Positive Coping Mechanism:  Engaging in volunteer work can serve as a positive outlet for emotions and energy, providing a constructive way to cope with stress or trauma.

Supporting children and young people to achieve and receive these benefits also takes an awareness of some of the more challenging impacts, so we can help children navigate their volunteering commitments with other aspects of their overall wellbeing. This includes:

    • Emotional Strain:  The responsibilities and emotional weight of advocacy and volunteering can be stressful, particularly for children who are already dealing with personal challenges.
    • Burnout:  Without proper support and balance, children may experience burnout from trying to manage their volunteer activities alongside their personal lives and academic responsibilities.
    • Unmet Expectations:  If their contributions are not recognised or if they do not see immediate changes resulting from their efforts, children may feel disillusioned or undervalued.
    • Reliving Trauma:  Sharing their experiences or working closely with the care system may force children to relive traumatic events, which can be emotionally taxing.
    • Social Pressure:  Some children might feel pressured to volunteer or advocate in order to gain approval or recognition, which can be detrimental if they are not genuinely interested or ready for such activities.

Reflecting on how we can best support children and young people to achieve this balance, Shona told us:

“The contributions of children and young people with a care experience cannot be underrated, it is also essential we recognise that this comes with a cost. It isn’t the financial, nor is it necessarily the time; the real cost is the unseen, and it does happen. What amazes me is that children and young people I talk with know this and, despite the cost, they continue to give because they know that they can make a real difference and be ‘that’ person who makes another child in care’s life more hopeful.

 It is our job, as the adults in the room, to support the best we can and mitigate any of these costs.”

3. Planning for success

Getting the balance right is different for every individual. Some of the strategies, supports and resources that may be useful to support children and young people include:

    • Mental Health Support:  Ensure access to counselling or mental health services to help children process their experiences and manage stress.
    • Balanced Expectations:  Set realistic and manageable expectations for volunteer activities to prevent overburdening the children.
    • Recognition and Reward:  Consistently acknowledge and celebrate their contributions to reinforce their value and efforts.
    • Mentorship and Guidance:  Provide strong mentorship and guidance to help children navigate their volunteer roles effectively and safely.
    • Flexibility:  Allow children to choose the extent and type of their involvement based on their interests and comfort levels.

So, as we rightfully recognise the contributions of the adults, systems and services in the out-of-home care sector, this week we also pay our attention to the little people who play the most important part in supporting each other and guiding us grownups to do better!

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