As summer approaches, many teens are considering spending their vacations volunteering with a summer service trip. For teens, spending anywhere from a week to the whole summer away might sound so perfect that the project and destination don’t matter. For parents, the very idea of turning over a child’s care to veritable strangers might sound like a recipe for disaster. But, careful planning can keep teens’ expectations realistic and ease parents’ worries.

Expectations and Goals

First, as a teen, consider what type of volunteer work you would like to do. Are you drawn to working with children? Do you desire to learn more about health care in primitive cultures? Do you thrive performing physical labor? Remember, as a volunteer, you will be performing these duties full-time for the length of your commitment, so make sure you enjoy the type of work required of you. Signing up for work that you know you don’t like, but that is in a desirable location, will likely lead to a miserable experience.

Next, define your goals. Consider what motivates you to work well. Do you prefer to work in a team or on your own? Do you enjoy the adrenaline rush of culture shock or need the comfort blanket of reasonable familiarity? Be honest with yourself about what your personal limits are, where you think you could push yourself, and what skills and attributes you bring to the table. Then consider what you hope to accomplish with this trip. Is this checking a box for college or building upon a long-term volunteer interest? Is this a stepping-stone to help you learn new skills, practice a foreign language, or immerse yourself in a different culture? Use the answers to these questions to guide your selections. 

Finally, decide between volunteering domestically or abroad. Be realistic, and choose a project because of its quality and alignment with your goals, not because it looks glamorous. Choosing a domestic volunteer trip is not an inferior choice. While volunteering abroad certainly offers unique experiences, it is not the only way to accomplish the volunteering goals you set for yourself, and it doesn’t automatically impress college admissions officers.

Practical Factors

Consider who is in charge, and what their backgrounds are. Parents, do your due diligence, and perform some research on the overseeing organization as well as its leaders. Inquire about the leaders’ qualifications to direct the type of volunteer work your teen would be doing. Look closely at the organization’s mission and values, how long it has been in operation, and third-party reviews. Part of this research will reveal to you if the project is more tourist-oriented than service-oriented.

Also, find out how many teens will be in the volunteering group, determine what the leader/teen ratio is. Some teens might thrive in large groups, while others would be better suited in small groups. An adequate leader/teen ratio ensures the volunteers’ safety, and it also preserves the integrity and productivity of the program.

Finally, consider the safety policies and risk management protocols. Make sure that all leaders have at least basic first aid and CPR training, and ask about what protocols are in place if a volunteer gets injured. If teens volunteer at different locations from day to day, be sure that the volunteer group’s transportation is well planned, and that the organization has solid communication methods in place, should an emergency occur.

Experiential Considerations

Even a trip that is one week long and in your own state will expose you to a part of life different from your own. Whether it’s focused on the environment, children, animals, or disaster relief, make sure you choose a summer service project that dedicates time before, during, and after volunteering to education and reflection on the cause you serve. This service-learning aspect of your trip will help you understand the nuances of the cause you serve, your role as a volunteer, and your power in serving the cause later.

Determine how much interaction you will have with the beneficiaries of your volunteer work and the local people of the communities you serve. What do you need to know about their background or culture so that you can better relate to them? Do you need to learn a new language to communicate with them? Being able to engage with local community members during a service trip provides a valuable aspect to the overall experience, helping teens fully grasp how their volunteering impacts the lives of others.

Ultimately, remember, you will be making your summer service trip your home away from home for a while, so make sure you are comfortable with the living arrangements. Some programs offer a group home to their summer volunteers, while others ask local residents to open a bedroom in their homes to individual volunteers. The longer your summer service trip is, the more important that home will be, so choose wisely.


Remember, at the heart of it, a summer service trip is just that: an opportunity to serve. By spending an extended period of time volunteering, you have the chance to learn about the complexities behind the issue and to further understand how to solve the problem. Don’t forget: not only will you be there to serve, you will also be there to learn to lead. What you learn there can make a big impact then, and an even bigger impact later.


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