Teenagers, do we have a job offer for you. It's fun, rewarding, fits your interests, and just wait until you hear the salary...$0. We know what you're thinking: Why would I work for free? If I earn money, I can save up and buy an iPod, a Nintendo Wii or several pizzas. That's true. But volunteering (instead of or in addition to, say, flipping burgers) offers even greater benefits.
A volunteering gig might not supply cash in hand, but you still have a lot to gain—including experience in a field that interests you (and, if your school requires it, sought-after service credits). Wild about animals? Teens who become Discovery Guides at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo educate guests, lend a helping hand at exhibits and make sure that special events go smoothly. And feline fans 16 and older can help socialize abandoned cats and kittens or lend a paw—er, hand—with clerical duties at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) office on the Upper East Side.
Those who prefer flora to fauna can cultivate their green thumbs at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, or at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as part of the Garden Apprentice Program (GAP). Volunteers study agriculture, get their hands dirty in the vegetable plot at the Children's Garden and make NYC an overall greener place. If the environment's your thing, you might also be inspired to clean up the City's beaches and trails, learn to test water quality and more at Gateway National Recreation Area in Staten Island.
Have Some Fun
If a task is fun and exciting, it doesn't feel like work at all. Nobody has to pay you to read your favorite book, hang out with friends or play basketball (at least we hope not), which is why you should check out volunteer opportunities that blur the line between work and play.
Tired of life as a landlubber? At the Waterfront Museum in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, teens can restore a real-life barge by cleaning, painting, hanging artifacts and more (the only thing missing is the parrot for your shoulder). No nautical experience? No problem. All you need is a willingness to "work and get dirty," as the museum puts it.
If you're into squash—the racket game, not the food—team up with younger kids through the StreetSquash program in Harlem. You'll teach children how to play, and high school juniors and seniors can also help StreetSquash students through academic tutoring.
One popular (and important) way to volunteer is by helping the elderly, and there are many chances to do so in the five boroughs. Dorot, named with the Hebrew word for "generations," connects young volunteers with older New Yorkers. Dorot volunteers serve meals, celebrate birthdays and more—all while gaining wisdom from and forming friendships with senior citizens.
Another traditional volunteer site is the library. At the Queens Library, students 14 and older act as tutors, guides, book-sale helpers and overall motivators when it comes to reading. Even if you don't live in Queens, your local library might love to have your help. Just ask (but if you visit the library in person, remember to ask quietly).
Go for It
If you're interested in any of these activities, email or call the organizations directly to find out if they have a spot for you. And if you want to get involved but aren't interested in the options above, head to the Internet—there are tons of opportunities out there waiting. Dosomething.org offers many volunteer activities for teenagers and young adults. And if you're 17 or older, City Year has yearlong service options for you.
These sites can help you find fun and thought-provoking ways to help others—and you just might discover a talent you never knew you had. Just try buying that at the Apple Store.