Partial mural painted in a K-8 school.

Volunteering opportunities are abundant in the city of Detroit. While there are so many great causes and organizations to support, and all that are deserving of resources and recognition, I would like to note the importance of serving the Detroit youth through academic and socioemotional supports. This is very close to my heart.  I studied psychology and history at the University of Michigan where I learned about social systems, socioemotional support, youth development, and worked on several research projects and student groups to put mental health strategies and challenging social systems in practice. I then went on to work a couple years with City Year Detroit, an education-focused nonprofit.  I worked in two Detroit elementary-middle schools where I implemented and oversaw programming for academic, behavior, and attendance supports for students grades third through eighth.  This experience fueled my passion for serving, empowering and advocating for Detroit youth.

So why is it important to support Detroit youth? The youth will always be the next generation of great leaders (and arguably, they are not only our future leaders, but they are society’s leaders now).  Supporting positive growth will help these brilliant and innovative young people reach their highest potential.  There are also many reasons why, for issues of social justice, we should be supporting urban students.  All children deserve the same treatment and opportunities.  Unfortunately, that’s just not reality for suburban vs urban schools and neighborhoods.  A whole book could be written on this topic, in fact there’s countless reading on the state of education in Detroit. Bottom line, to create equitable opportunities for youth everywhere, we need to bolster support in Detroit.

One of the many notes (and one of my favorites) from a student: qualitative evidence of impact.

The students I worked with taught me many lessons in how to best engage youth (and many other life lessons, stories for another time).

1.  Be honest.  Kids and teenagers can detect authenticity (and the lack thereof) from a mile away.  Be aware of your identity and privilege as well as the space you’re walking into. Be yourself and don’t change who you are or your background to try to relate or up your “cool factor”. It doesn’t work, and it won’t help foster any relationships.

2.  Check yourself at the door.  Remember the priority is on the kids; don’t bring baggage into it.  Let go of what is going on in the day, all the things on the to do list, and any stress and just be present with the kids. Drop the notion of “saving” the kids.  Regardless of the various circumstances in which the students may be living, they are strong, resilient humans that don’t need a superhero.

3. Two ears, one mouth.  A mentor of mine told me this: we are given two ears and one mouth, it’s clear which we are supposed to use more.  Sure, you will be talking with kids, but listen first and listen often.  Step back and let the kids show up where they are. Empower their stories, dreams, and goals. Active listening is the heart of empathy and will flourish relationships.

A few organizations with youth volunteer opportunities:

  • Downtown Boxing Gym“Education Changes Everything: Since 2007 we have been teaching kids in Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods valuable life lessons – inside and outside the classroom and the boxing ring.” Mentoring and event support volunteer opportunities here.
  • 826Michigan“826michigan inspires school-aged students to write confidently and skillfully with the help of adult volunteers in their communities.” Tutoring volunteer opportunities here. 
  • Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS)“COTS is one of the largest providers of hous­ing to home­less fam­i­lies in the City of Detroit — shel­ter­ing more than 100 home­less chil­dren night­ly. COTS pro­vides emer­gen­cy shel­ter for fam­i­lies, sup­port­ive ser­vices, mobil­i­ty coach­ing through our Pass­port to Self-Suf­fi­cien­cy™, child care, long-term hous­ing and safe tran­si­tion­al hous­ing for fam­i­lies.” Childcare volunteering opportunities here.
  • Want more options? Go to Volunteer Match and search by Detroit under “Children & Youth” Causes. Link here.

Thanks for reading – and if you aren’t already involved with youth, I hope you spend some time listening to young people.  They have amazing things to say.