YouthSERVE Gardening project
YouthSERVE Builds Santa Cruz Youth and Community

One might say that YouthSERVE is equal parts matchmaking and volunteerism. The program draws on the personalities, drive, and abilities of the young people of Santa Cruz to match them with volunteer projects that suit both them and those they serve. Perhaps that’s why the YouthSERVE program is so successful. Or perhaps the success of YouthSERVE is due to the community culture of giving so pervasive in Santa Cruz. After all, YouthSERVE is run under the auspices of the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center, which has been going strong for 50 years.

Whatever the reason for YouthSERVE’s success, Kars4Kids felt very good about awarding this particular program a small grant. Giving kids useful work to do that helps the community? Way to not only keep kids off the streets in their free time, but actually mold them into productive members of society. By doing good!

We wanted to give this impressive program a helping hand, if even in a modest way. And so we did.  We spoke to Santa Cruz Volunteer Center Director of Volunteer Connections Christina Thurston to learn more about the work of YouthSERVE.

Kars4Kids: What are some of the positive effects that YouthSERVE has had on the youth of your community?

Christina Thurston: YouthSERVE gives the youth of the community the ability to volunteer in different organizations in the community and they are able to explore their options.

Kars4Kids: How many volunteer leaders are enrolled in your YouthSERVE program and how many volunteer youths?

Christina Thurston: Six dedicated adults volunteer to lead 250 youth in projects throughout the year.

YouthSERVE Award

Kars4Kids: Your website says the commitment is 4 hours per month. What is the length of the commitment?

Christina Thurston: For adult leaders we ask for 4 hours a month for 6 months. For teen volunteers the projects are more flexible so that students can volunteer when they have time.

Kars4Kids: What if a volunteer just isn’t working out? Has that ever happened?

Christina Thurston: We’ve never had any problems with the teen volunteers- they are so generous and excited to be of service to their community. Sometimes volunteers want to do something that doesn’t fit with our program goals. When that happens we just help them find another opportunity.

YouthSERVE Senior Tech Day

Kars4Kids: Tell us what happens at a Senior Tech Day?

Christina Thurston: At Senior Tech Day we have youth help out Seniors that are wanting to learn more about their favorite apps, phones and any other social media. This builds the youth’s communication skills and the seniors get to be taught how to navigate their phones better.

YouthSERVE young volunteer helps senior with his smartphone during Senior Tech Day

Kars4Kids: Tell us about your gardening projects and “Community Celebrations.”

Christina Thurston: Throughout the year we host projects at school and community gardens. We build new gardening beds, clear areas for planting and generally get the gardens ready for the school to use. It’s always fun to see the transformation of the garden space.

We host a few community events throughout the year to engage large groups in volunteerism. Our largest event is in October for One Book At A Time where we bring 100 high school students and community volunteers to a local elementary school for a day. We read to all the kids, play games and give out books for the younger students to take home. The goal for this event is to get the younger kids excited about learning and reading. They look up to the high school students so much that they are inspired to have fun while reading.

YouthSERVE Gardening project

Kars4Kids: How many kids are enrolled in Reading Buddies? Can you tell us about this program?

Christina Thurston: Reading Buddies is a project where middle and high school students help teach K-2nd grade students to read. We have this program at Starlight Elementary, Schapiro Knolls and starting in January at Emerald Apartments. At every site we strive to have at least 5 youth so in total we have about 20-30 youth participating in Reading Buddies

YouthSERVE Reading Buddies

Kars4Kids: Tell us about the Summer of Service Institute. How many kids attend? Is there a fee to attend?

Christina Thurston: The Youth Summer Institute Program is a project where the youth are able to volunteer at different organizations that they are interested in and one day want to make a career out of it. We have had youth volunteer at Jacobs Heart, Mariposas Art, Digital NEST, Environmental Science Workshop, Elderday and many more. We have about 20-30 youth volunteer in the summer and the program is free to everyone.

Kars4Kids: Have some of the youth who have attended Summer of Service gone into the nonprofit sector?

Christina Thurston: I was a volunteer with YouthSERVE when I was in high school. I learned so much that I continued volunteering throughout my adult life and was inspired to work in the nonprofit sector after I graduated from college. I love working at the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County now! I’m inspired everyday by the new generation of YouthSERVE volunteers. I’m not the only YouthSERVE alumna to work in the public sector.

YouthSERVE volunteers with young charge as part of Reading Buddies program

Kars4Kids: What’s next for the Volunteer Center?

Christina Thurston: Our goal is to provide opportunities for meaningful volunteer service for teens throughout Santa Cruz County. Our goal for this year is to expand and offer Senior Tech Day and other projects in San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley.

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