Four lessons for effectively engaging youth

I remember my first summer volunteering at the age of 12 for my local YMCA summer camp. Being the youngest of three and seeing my older siblings head off to work each day as camp counselors, I was determined to get in on the action and not be left at home alone.  I managed to convince the camp director to let me join the team as a volunteer that supported activities for the 6 year olds. That experience, coupled with many others — including serving as a youth representative on a national board and launching a nonprofit at the age of 18 — opened my eyes to a number of key lessons on how to effectively engage youth as volunteers, partners, and problem solvers.

Lesson #1: Build authentic relationships

When we invest in getting to know each other below the surface, we open the door for establishing more sustainable and trusting relationships.  We all have had people come in and out of our lives, often times seeking something in the moment and then moving on. That can impact our willingness to openly trust others and be vulnerable by showing up with full authenticity. We can build long term relationships with youth when we mutually explore the experiences that we have had, the values that influence our choices, and the perceptions that we hold in our minds.

Lesson #2: Focus on strengths

From early in our lives, we have been told that there are things that we are good at and things that we need to improve. Many of us focus our time and energy on our areas of weakness, determined to improve and gain acceptance from those judging us. If we refocus our time and energy on further developing and deploying our strengths, we can gain a greater sense of satisfaction. Often it is in our strengths that we discover our passion and define our purpose. By encouraging young people to leverage their strengths and identifying tangible opportunities to do so, we empower them to be active contributors to teams and communities. This leads youth to feeling valued and to gaining a stronger sense of belonging.

Lesson #3: Challenge youth with growth opportunities

When working with youth, it is important to challenge them to step outside of their comfort level and experience new interactions with people, places, and events. It broadens their frame of reference and shows them unique possibilities. We all have a tendency to stick with what is familiar which can limit our networks and opportunities. To expand the success trajectory for youth, it is our obligation to provide as many growth opportunities as possible and encourage them to explore, discover, and integrate these new experiences into their future decision making and points of view.

Lesson #4: Celebrate and recognize

Recognition is a critical element in building and sustaining effective relationships with youth. Many youth today feel constantly judged and criticized by their peer group, families, and the media. By celebrating their accomplishments and recognizing their growth both one on one and publically within group settings, youth gain greater self-confidence and strengthen their connections to you, a group, and the broader community which is now embracing and validating the value and the strengths that young people bring to the table.

Effectively building relationships with youth requires time, consistency, and authenticity. As these partnerships unfold, we have the opportunity to be catalysts of change, setting youth up for success both today and for the long term while strengthening our organizations and foundations with game-changing leadership that spans across multiple generations.

Do you want to take action based on the lessons above and work on building effective partnerships with youth?  If so, here are some recommendations that I have used through the years.

Build Authentic Relationships Take Action: Draw a coat of arms on a sheet of paper, dividing it into four equal parts.  Have the youth and adults use both words and pictures to reflect on one of the following in each of the parts:

  1. Influential people in our lives;
  2. Influential experiences that we have had;
  3. Dreams and aspirations; and
  4. Strengths and unique talents.

Have youth and adults share their coat of arms with each other to explore below the surface and begin to discover our unique individual stories.

Focus on Strengths – Take Action: Draw a table with 4-6 rows and 3 columns.  Label the columns from left to right: Strengths – Application – Results. Have youth identify in the first column between 3-5 strengths that they have. In the second column, brainstorm ways that they can apply their strengths to the team/organization or a community issue. Over the next few weeks, check in with the youth on how they have applied their strengths and capture the results in the third column.  Reflect on the experience of applying their strengths either one on one or in a small group setting.

Challenge with Growth Opportunities – Take Action: Expand youth interactions and experiences by:

  1. Inviting youth to join you for a meeting or shadow you at work;
  2. Taking youth to a cultural event such as a museum exhibit, theater production or speaker series; and
  3. Explore a different neighborhood with youth while learning about its history, trying a popular restaurant or ethnic food, and talking with some of the residents or shop owners about the community.

Reflect on the experiences with youth by discussing perceptions before and after the interactions as well as key insights that they gained.

Celebrate and recognize – Take Action: At the beginning of every meeting, invite youth and adults to share a recent accomplishment and celebrate their contribution. This enables continual learning about each other while strengthening bonds across generations. Another recommendation would be to use an iconic object as an award that is presented each month or quarter to a youth for their contributions and accomplishments (i.e. light bulb = bright, new ideas; hand clapper = strong, motivating energy; stuffed lion = exemplary leadership). Youth could even select an adult award recipient as well.

About D.G. Horgan Group

D.G. Horgan Group drives impact through effective leadership development across the talent pipeline. We work with youth in grades K-12, college students and adults to fully leverage their power, potential and purpose through our customized training solutions, experiential learning opportunities, speaking engagements, coaching and consulting.  For more information, log onto