DALTON, Ga. — Last week, 17-year-old Manuel Montelongo volunteered for the first time. He worked in a food pantry, played with children at a nonprofit daycare, and toiled in the mud to build a Habitat for Humanity house.
“It might be dirty work and hard work, but it’s worth it,” he said, grinning while dripping with sweat on a humid day. “... You’re helping people that need help.”
The United Way of Northwest Georgia held its first five-day volunteer vacation last week, bringing about 20 teens to several Whitfield agencies, including the Salvation Army, the Boys and Girls Club and the Alzheimer’s Association.
United Way’s Andrea Dobbins said the camp aims to inspire teens to continue volunteering.
“If you meet an adult who volunteers, they probably volunteered as a kid,” she explained.
According to a U.S. Department of Education study, high school volunteers were more likely to donate their time later in life.
The 2003 study showed that 54 percent of students who volunteered in high school did community service two years later, compared to only 27 percent of the young people who didn’t volunteer as teens.
* More than 35 percent of volunteers recently surveyed volunteered for a religious organization.
* More than 45 percent of volunteers who were mothers with children under 18 volunteered for a youth-related organization.
* More than 44 percent of volunteers surveyed became involved with their organization after being asked to volunteer.
Source: Department of Labor report, Volunteering in the United States 2007
In Whitfield County, there is a particular need for help from volunteers, teenage or otherwise, officials said. The per capita income here is only $17,920, and the housing slump has cost carpet-industry workers precious overtime and even jobs.
The effects of the economy here can be seen in substandard housing and at overwhelmed food banks.
Gaile Jennings, executive director of the Dalton-Whitfield Community Development Corp., spoke to the teens early in the week about housing.
Ms. Jennings said that residents — adults and teens alike — often don’t know about the dilapidated houses in Whitfield County because they’re not concentrated in a single blighted section of town.
“It’s from one end of the county to the other,” she said. “Residents don’t have a clue.”
Mr. Montelongo, the 17-year-old, came here from Torreon Coahuila in Mexico, where he saw poverty everywhere. But he never realized that there was so much poverty right here in Whitfield County, he said.
Ms. Dobbins said teaching the teens to help the poor around them will empower them to become “helpers” rather than “helpless.” And, by several accounts, the volunteer summer campers worked tirelessly all week.
Social worker Robin Wright said they packed at least 100 boxes of groceries for the busy Salvation Army food bank. “They made our food boxes, so all our guy had to do was say, ‘Here’s your food box,’” she said.
Community Center director Tom Pinson — a strong supporter of teen volunteerism — also observed the teens’ work. He believes volunteering teaches young people about the importance of community and taking pride in their accomplishments.
“If nothing else,” he added, “it also gives them a sense of responsibility.”