BOSTON — Here is how summer vacation is shaping up for many middle-school-age kids ecstatic that their classes are over: They'll head to the swimming pool, the mall, the movies, play Nintendo, rent videos, visit friends, and go to a theme park.
That's just the first week.
But it doesn't take long for the "nothing-to-do-this-summer" blues to set in - particularly for 11-to-15-year-olds. Too old for day care and too young to be employed or drive, these teenagers often find themselves at loose ends by the Fourth of July.
That's why Amy Schoon plans to spend some of her summer break with a six-foot Ball python draped around her neck. "I really like snakes," she says. "When you hold them you can literally feel their muscles when they move."
Her snake-handling duties are part of a volunteer program for teens at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich. Amy began volunteering two years ago when she was 14.
For many adolescents like Amy, a summer of service is a satisfying and fun way to fill the idle hours. But volunteering can also be a source of new friends, new skills, and may even help define career ambitions.
Increasingly, volunteering options are opening up within communities as businesses and nonprofit groups embrace teenagers as a resource. For example, teens have been tapped to assist at local animal shelters, initiate recycling drives, support a political campaign, work at municipal day camps, read to young children at the library while parents browse, help out at a local art gallery or theater, play Monopoly with senior citizens, and, of course, become apprentice zoo keepers.
Mike Forton, curator of education at the Ball zoo, says that more North American zoos are turning to teen volunteers. "If you give them the opportunity and trust them," he says, "and if they are surrounded by adults who treat them like adults, they can do incredible things."
After passing a rigorous interview and application process, the teens don red T-shirts and work one day a week picking up litter, cleaning stalls in the petting zoo area, and grooming animals. For animal demonstrations, they are trained to handle ducks, turtles, and small mammals, and then work their way up to audience thrillers like the Chilean rose-haired tarantula.
THE volunteers may also be assigned to research a species, like the snow leopard, and then stand by an exhibit and answer questions from zoo visitors.
"At first it was kind of nerve-wracking because I never had done any public speaking," Amy says. But after about a month, she relaxed and had fun. "It helps me a lot in different classes I take at school ... like giving speeches in English class," she says.
Not all communities will have formal programs such as this, but another approach is to volunteer at a parent's or relative's workplace.
Preteen Matthew Geagan, of Watertown, Mass., has a cousin who is a manager at a local cable company. Through this connection, Matthew will be spending two evenings a week this summer filming men's community-league basketball. A cable employee brings the camera equipment to the courts, sets it up, and Matthew films the outdoor games for later broadcast on the local channel.
"It's really fun," says Matthew, clearly taken with the work. "I used to want to be a director. Now I'm really into sports. I'd like to become an ESPN sportscaster," he says.
Researchers say that if an adult family member volunteers, a youngster in the family is more inclined to feel comfortable getting involved.
Twelve-year-old Dawn Hazen, for example, began volunteering at the emergency food pantry in her town of Bellingham, Mass., because her father helped out there. Saturday mornings she sets up tables of canned goods and carries the groceries to people's cars.
This summer, she says she plans to stop in at a senior health center, next door to the pantry. "I'll be coming up during the week and helping with the elderly," Dawn says. "It brightens their day." She'll play cards, board games, draw, or go on outings with them.
It may be awkward for some kids to do this at first. "But once you get to know the people, they are really nice," she says.
YOUTH VOLUNTEER OPTIONS
* America's Charities
* Earth Force
* Habitat for Humanity
* National 4-H Council
* Points of Light Foundation
* Youth Volunteer Corps of America