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Volunteering: A Path Upward for Disconnected Youth

Consider this: 5.6 million U.S. teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working. Many of these “disconnected youth” are simply cut off from education and career paths that could help them live a good life and make positive contributions to our society and our economy.

The ramifications of this situation – and recommendations for addressing it – are highlighted in an excellent report from Opportunity Nation, “Connecting Youth and Strengthening Communities: The Data Behind Civic Engagement and Economic Opportunity.” While many benefits of volunteering are well-known, this report found something new: volunteering may offer a path to upward mobility for disconnected youth. In fact, the report found that across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., higher rates of volunteering are associated with lower rates of disconnected youth and lower income inequality.

According to Opportunity Nation, “The personal and collective costs of youth disconnection are steep. Young adults who are not in school or working cost taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services.” Clearly, if we can reconnect more youth to meaningful educational and career pathways, we will all benefit.

There are many ways to do this. Among other things, Opportunity Nation recommends that more business leaders and employers launch and lead initiatives that allow professionals to interact with youth. Nearly 350,000 people have responded to United Way’s call and pledged to be a volunteer reader, tutor or mentor, and local United Ways are connecting many others to volunteer opportunities to work with at-risk youth. Or you could get involved in a youth employment program, like MatchBridge. Run by United Way of the Bay Area, MatchBridge helps young people find jobs and internships that enable work-based learning. Participants are coached throughout the job search process and gain exposure to careers and a positive future. Not only does this help them build professional skills, confidence and a stronger work ethic, it also builds motivation to complete high school and go on to college or other types of education and training.

Supporting AmeriCorps, City Year, and other programs that ask young adults to serve, equip them with leadership and other skills, and reward them with funds for education is another way we can help connect them with a bright future. Thanks to this research by Opportunity Nation, we now have the facts to support what we already knew to be true: helping young adults succeed isn’t simply an opportunity to feel good; it is a chance to advance the common good.