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commentary CNA Lifestyle

Commentary: What youths who volunteer can teach us

Volunteerism reinforces a sense of identity, purpose and belonging which is why so many youths volunteer, says non-profit organisation head Melissa Kwee.

Commentary: What youths who volunteer can teach us

Volunteers from Teck Ghee Primary School, Pathlight School and Raffles Institution help clean seniors' homes in Ang Mo Kio. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)

SINGAPORE: Volunteering for a cause, according to our statistics, seems part and parcel of being young. 

Across the past decade, the volunteerism rate among youth has been consistently high relative to other age groups. 41 per cent of the 15 to 24 year-old cohort say they have volunteered at least once in the last 12 months, according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016 by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). 

In this survey, volunteering excludes compulsory community service in school but includes informal acts like bringing an elderly neighbour to her medical appointment.

However, beyond these participation rates lie stories of personal change and life-learning journeys that may also hold lessons for the rest of us who can no longer be credibly considered youths.

What can the high rates of volunteerism among youths teach the rest of us? Theories of adolescent development posit three broad areas that youth solidifies for most individuals: a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging. Volunteering helps to answer questions that we have in these three areas and reinforce the answers we develop for ourselves, at a critical stage of our development. No wonder so many youths volunteer. 


Youths, in their formative years are eager to affirm that their lives are worth something, that what they do matter, and in turn receive some acknowledgement of their contribution. Voluntary service provides youths a space where they can build self-esteem through meeting needs, creating positive change, and bringing creativity, beauty and joy to other people. Being a contributing member of society gives them a sense of identity.

But it is also a chicken and egg issue. If we first see ourselves as talented and gifted people each with a contribution to make, we can be a contribution to our communities. But if we see ourselves as lacking, not meeting the mark and struggling to survive, we limit ourselves. For, how can we pour from an empty cup?

And ultimately, we seek a positive identity; where we give of ourselves to one another and not just take to make a living. Becoming a volunteer is one powerful way to own, express and deepen this identity. 

I remember travelling with some of the Little Sisters from Beautiful People with a few other volunteers on an overseas service trip to a refugee settlement in Northern Thailand one year. One of the mentees had dropped out of school in Secondary Two and was not confident with her spoken English.

Yet when we told her she would teach a children’s English class, her eyes widened – perhaps out of fear initially, but when we encouraged her – she eased into the role and rose to the occasion.  She had dropped out of school, and yet today would act as a teacher to younger children. She didn’t listen to others when she was in class, but now would have to command the attention of a diverse cohort of twenty odd kids. It tested her, grew her and emboldened her. 

Today, five years later, this youth, a child of addicts and once homeless and underemployed, is enjoying a career as a youth camp facilitator and is a role model to many of us. There were many other positive factors in her life, including her dedicated mentor, but I can’t help but think that in that instance many years ago when she was told that she was valuable and needed, she became that person.

A famous German educator of the early twentieth century Kurt Hahn said: “There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion. And there is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say ‘you must volunteer.’ That is the devil. And you can tell them, ‘you are needed’. That hardly ever fails.”  This was also true for my young friend.

Whether through the awareness of strengths and weaknesses or discovering how one can be a contributor, being a volunteer speaks to the questions of worth and identity that shapes who we are and what we become. 

Youths volunteers co-leading a group exercise during a Health Promotion Board event. (Photo: CNA)


One’s vocation or purpose, Frederick Beuchner writes, “is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”  Deep down, we each have our existential itches to know for what reason we take up real estate and air space, but few of us confront this squarely.

For baby boomers and even generation X, it is far more common to choose practical careers and dive headfirst. Twenty or thirty years later, mid-life questions and pangs sometimes manifest in erratic behavior and crises.

Millennials on the other hand, seem far more comfortable delaying commitment and exploring the wide range of possibilities much earlier on in their lives. This exploration includes volunteering, taking time off, travelling, starting new initiatives or seeking to integrate some form of doing good into their working lives. This may involve seeking ways to be involved in social enterprises, or more commonly amongst millennial entrepreneurs, to do good through one’s business. 

Interestingly, for youths aged 15 to 34 years-old, two of the top motivators for volunteering relate to personal goals and purpose. The most popular motivation stated by 15 to 24 year-olds is “I helped make the world a better place” whereas 25 to 34 year olds stated “volunteering has helped me become a better person” as their top motivator. 

Now there may be less altruistic motivations for many youths who volunteer: Namely, looking good for college or job applications. It is astounding what lengths students (and their parents in many instances) will go to, to boost their service accomplishments, even to the extent of founding orphanages in developing countries in name, to validate their leadership skills and compassion.

While this may sound disingenuous, I do not begrudge service based on such motivations when the effect bears actions that are practically responsive to needs, and thoughtful about partnering the community for a commonly desired impact. In my mind, the underlying motivations matter less than the impact these actions have in responding to ground realities and mobilising resources to improve the situation.

We should trust that the self-learning will happen, and good work will eventually be done.  The purpose of one’s life can change over the course of one’s journey – and the point is to keep refining the answer.

More practically, if we discount people because of their “impure” motivations, I fear we will have a very small pool of altruists and many black pots and kettles. The point is to start, to be humble and open to learning.


Volunteering brings like-minded individuals together. A common cause (or enemy in other cases) is a long-standing driver of unity and collective action. Youths tend to volunteer with friends or even to make friends. It is a regular social activity with an added dimension of purpose that can bond people at the level of shared values beyond common interests.

SEA Games Sports Volunteers at an event acknowledging their commitment and dedication. (Photo: CNA/Ernest Chua)

Youth groups are a classic example of this, especially in religious contexts where the added factor of spiritual kinship can create life-long buddies. For youths seeking affinity with other like-minded individuals, volunteering tends to be an attractive option that meets this need for belonging be it in peer or multi-generational groups.

To boot, volunteering is becoming cool and which young person doesn’t seek acceptance from the “in group?” With each celebrity who owns a cause as much as his or her brand, comes the unspoken expectation that all real celebrities champion something. Whether Bono or fresh-faced Emma Watson, each has his or her own cause. It is cool to care these days. Whether it is the expectation placed by millennials upon prospective employers, or how they seek to affiliate themselves with those fighting for causes, youths are making the values of their tribe known.


So what do we learn from the three quests of identity, purpose and belonging and how volunteering speaks to these fundamental needs?

First, we learn that how we define who we are influences what we do and what we become. If we want to be a person of integrity and not just a public success yet a private failure, we need to define ourselves fundamentally as givers who impact lives and not people who just make a living.

Second, we learn that our purpose, be it for ourselves or for others, must be drawn from an empathetic understanding of the communities which we serve. 

Finally, we learn that that our social bonds are strengthened by shared and experienced values that shape us throughout our lives.

All this is possible if we step out of our daily routines and put in the effort to care for others to take actions beyond what seems convenient. 

In our chase for the more balanced, sophisticated and mature versions of ourselves, we sometimes forget our younger days where we permitted ourselves to be awkward, irreverent and daring.

As we gaze through the kaleidoscope of our lives, perhaps it is time to seize back our childlike instincts. Bear-hug the toddler who stumbled and fell but picked herself up with a new lesson learned. Listen to the child in us who wanted to put on a cape and deliver evil a blow the jaw. Embrace the youth in us who wanted to fight poverty and injustice with concerts and hashtags.

These past versions of ourselves may have been small and foolish, but perhaps daring hearts and simple dreams are just what our world-weary souls need. And for those nostalgic and envious of the passion and vigour of youth, perhaps a foray into volunteering is just what might kindle the eternal fountain of youth within.

Melissa Kwee is Chief Executive Officer of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and acknowledges her staff Samuel Tan who contributed some insights to this piece.

Source: CNA/sl


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