Volunteering is a key element in any community
The importance of volunteering is recognized internationally. In 1990, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration on Volunteering, which states that "We humans have the power to change the world" and that "All people in the world should have the right to freely offer their time, talent and energy for the benefit of others or their community through individual or collective action, and without expecting financial rewards”.
If all people in the world should have this right, why do we have a legal minimum age for volunteering?
The minimum age for volunteering is a regulation present in many European countries. The main arguments are related to the physical, cognitive and behavioral development of children.
The age limit is set to protect children from a number of risks. This does not mean that the age of 15 (with the consent of the legal representative) or 16 years (with their own consent) must be the age at which they first find out about volunteerism.
When does the education for volunteering begin?
The sooner, the better! The values and principles which are the core of volunteering are valid at any age. Generosity, tolerance, inclusion, care for nature and others, responsibility for one's own actions, the spirit of civic initiative can develop very well both at home, in the family, and through the educational system or extra-curricular activities, within an NGO.
By getting involved together with their parents and teachers in the first volunteer learning activities, children will make the transition from school to an active and involved social life.
By setting an age limit, the law does not prohibit the involvement of minors under the age of 15 in environmental cleaning activities, varuous information campaigns or fundraising. In fact, it does not prohibit the involvement in any kind of action through which children may develop and which does not obstruct a healthy development.
So what's the difference between a volunteer activity and an educational volunteer activity?
The main objective of the volunteer activity is to achieve concrete results, such as making 100 food packages, planting and caring for a community garden, cleaning a park, inventorying books in the library, etc.
In a volunteer education activity, we can include all the above, but the main objective is learning.
We may learn more about vulnerable people living in our society, about how to plant and maintain a garden, but beyond that, it is more important to learn about our role in the community, how we can contribute, how we work together with others, how we can make the changes we need.
The actual activity
Depending on the age, the activity itself may look exactly the same or slightly different. Younger ones may need more supervision and support to complete their tasks. In some activities, it may even be recommended to try to involve one adult for each child.
We already know that we can learn from every experience we go through and especially that we can learn a lot from volunteering.
We recommend a moment of reflection or debriefing after each activity, but this is not absolutely essential if we do not intend to learn something specific from an experience.
At the end of the educational volunteering activity, however, this moment cannot be missed. A simple discussion about the work done, its effects on us and others, and the conclusions we have reached, can help us to extract some very valuable ideas for the future and to make sure that we have really managed to learn something about volunteering.
As part of the volunteering activity, the volunteer assumes the responsibility to act according to the instructions and use the safety measures provided to them, but in a learning activity, in which children of very young ages are involved, the organizers are those who have the responsibility to make sure that everything goes well.
Depending on the activity, the role of young people varies, between participants and volunteers. Even if the actual activity they perform is similar or even identical, the responsibility assumed will always be greater for the volunteer than for a participant in a learning activity.
Even though learning activities are mostly found in kindergartens and schools while volunteering is more popular with NGOs, there is nothing stopping us from changing our organizational roles.
Schools can involve volunteers in activities - as long as they are at least 15 years old and have parental consent or are already 16 years old. At the same time, NGOs can organize volunteer clubs, projects, or educational activities, such as the Scouts.