Karen Osborne

When my beloved grandfather died, family members from around the country gathered in New York for his funeral. My mother was too distraught to cook, so the food to serve all those who attended had to come from somewhere. Enter the volunteers.

My Mormon aunt contacted the local church in the city and within one day we had over a dozen church members dropping off home-cooked dishes on my mother’s door for my family, even though the rest of us are Catholic.

Here’s the really amazing thing. My aunt lives in California. The Mormon ladies in New York responded not because they owed her something or because she was their friend. They volunteered their talents simply because my family was in need.

To the ladies, volunteering in this capacity meant a trip to the supermarket and an hour with the oven. They’ve probably forgotten us by now, but we will always remember their kindness. They had to do very little to make a big difference.

That’s why I encourage people, especially teens, to volunteer. Collecting coats for the homeless might take a few minutes for you, but to the homeless person at a shelter facing a day out in the cold, it is a substantial difference.

Reading books to children may mean spending an hour or two a week for you, but it could spark a lifelong love of reading for a child. A small contribution of time and talent can make a big difference.

Volunteer work also helps the volunteer. It can help a young volunteer figure out what to do in the future or discover new interests. By volunteering in a soup kitchen, hospital, school or a library, you could discover whether you want to teach, study culinary arts or be a construction worker in the future.

Volunteering can also help you learn more about the world. It lets you break out of the bubble of school, sports and extracurricular activities and give you a different perspective on life, about how other people live.

On top of that, volunteering is a great way to make friends. When I volunteered in college, over the course of a week, I developed friendships that have lasted over a decade. Why? Because volunteering allowed us to connect. We talked about our new experiences, how we were feeling and about things that were important to us.

But most of all, volunteering is a way for teens to change the world without having to be a president, a CEO, a television personality or a Nobel Prize winner.

You can’t yet solve the problems of world hunger, but you can solve the problems of hunger in your town by restocking the food bank. You can’t solve homelessness, but you can hammer some nails into a low-cost volunteer-built house in your area and change the world for one family.

As a teenager, you have many valuable resources. You are enthusiastic, creative, you have a lot of energy and you have a lot of free time. Putting that to use in your community not only helps you (and your college applications), but it can also be a great help to your community.