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VolunTeens group works to bring local volunteer opportunities to Howard students

The student-led group VolunTeens hosted its first Virtual Volunteer Fair on Wednesday, connecting Howard County students to volunteer opportunities at local nonprofits.

VolunTeens, a nonprofit founded in December by Atholton High School rising senior Michael Zhao, works year-round to connect local students to volunteer opportunities in the county. Using the Zoom online videoconferencing platform, the fair put 10 nonprofits in the same online space at the same time for students to learn about what volunteer opportunities are currently available.

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This format, according to Zhao, fills the gap that exists between the need to complete statewide service requirements to graduate and the lack of knowledge of where those opportunities exist.

“A lot of students do want to volunteer, but they don’t know where to reach out,” Zhao said.

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In order to receive a diploma in the state of Maryland, all students must complete 75 hours of student service learning hours from the time they begin sixth grade to the time they graduate high school. The requirement is adjusted for students who transfer into to the Howard County Public School System after ninth grade.

Last summer, Zhao participated in the countywide Leadership U. program. The four-month program, hosted by Leadership Howard County, exposes rising juniors to county government, business and services while developing mentoring relationships with adults and solutions for problems facing young people in the community.

While in the program, Zhao worked with a small group exploring income gaps among county residents. The group eventually developed a novel alternative to organizing a job fair: Instead of gathering employers to set up booths and pitch jobs to residents in need of work, they solicited local nonprofits to offer ways for students to volunteer and help them serve low-income residents, such as working with the Howard County Food Bank.

“After the service project ended, I realized that this issue of high schools students finding service opportunities is a big issue,” Zhao said.

The Leadership U. fair drew more than 50 students and seven Howard County nonprofits. At that point, Zhao knew the need for an organization like VolunTeens was there. A few months later, the organization officially became incorporated as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit.

Since December, the organization has grown to 42 members and boasts a leadership team consisting of Zhao, who serves as president, a vice president, two chiefs and coordinators at nine of the 12 Howard public high schools.

Zachary Kersh, a rising senior, serves as the Glenelg High School coordinator and also participated in Leadership U. with Zhao. After seeing advertisements for Wednesday’s fair on social media a few weeks ago, Kersh got involved with the effort and eventually became a coordinator.

“It’s really cool seeing everything come together when it’s being created by only students,” Kersh said. “We understand how students want volunteer hours, and we’re using VolunTeens as a middle site where students can go and find volunteer opportunities.”

Part of Kersh’s role as a coordinator is outreach to the Glenelg High community. He sent emails to the student body and got the student government to post on its social media account, all in an effort to get more attendees to Wednesday’s event.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the structure of the Virtual Volunteer Fair had to be user-friendly, according to Zhao. VolunTeens used the “breakout room” function of Zoom to split the meeting into different virtual rooms and allow multiple conversations to happen at once.

“I know a lot of parents are concerned that their kids are sitting on the couch all day. This fair is a great opportunity for them to get off the couch and find something productive to do,” Zhao said.

During the fair, the 10 participating nonprofits explained what their organization did and what opportunities were available, both to volunteer and to intern. The groups that joined the virtual fair included: Community Action Council, Special Olympics of Howard County, Meals on Wheels, the Community Ecology Institute, Winter Growth Inc., Food on the 15th, Islamic Leadership Institute of America, Student Voices of HoCo, the Maryland STEM Festival and Brynna’s Love.

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Veronica Adler, community engagement coordinator for the Community Ecology Institute, represented the organization at Wednesday’s fair.

“I’m really in awe. I wish I would have been able to join when I was in high school,” Adler said. “The most impressive thing to me is [Zhao’s] commitment to [the] longevity of VolunTeens. It wasn’t some college [application] fluff; it was something he attempted to have a lasting impact and something to help community organizations.”

As soon as Zhao connected with a board member of Community Ecology Institute, the organization was on the VolunTeens website and students were getting involved.

The institute works to connect people from different backgrounds with nature and each other, according to Adler. Community Ecology Institute also owns Freetown Farm, a 6.4-acre farm behind Atholton High School, where students — including Zhao and Kersh — have been volunteering.

A few weeks ago, Adler brought up the idea of creating an outdoor stage in the wooded area of the farm. Since then, VolunTeens volunteers have been on the property building the Imagination Stage in groups of five across multiple shifts for the past week. Adler’s goal is to finish the stage and six benches by this weekend.

“Being able to have youth engaged with nature and especially at a farm is far more exciting and exhilarating than it sounds,” Adler said.

In just the past week, Kersh said he spent 12 hours out in the heat working to complete the stage project.

“If I had seen [VolunTeens] in my freshman year, I definitely would have gotten involved more,” Kersh said. “Seeing everything right in front of you on the website makes it so much easier for students who want to get involved.”

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