On December 5, organisations around the world celebrate International Volunteer Day. This day, designated by the UN in 1985, focuses on paying tribute to volunteers, those people committed to making a difference in their communities. In theory, anyone can volunteer, but in modern society we rarely give our youngest citizens the chance to contribute.

As a teenager I volunteered through my church. My youth group made frequent trips downtown to stock the food and clothing pantry – free to those in need – and we spent a lot of time painting. We painted the food bank, low-income housing, churches and homes of people who couldn’t afford renovations. I have fond memories of helping to hold ladders, playing with small children on breaks and getting to know kids from other youth groups. Although I am no longer religious, I know that these experiences helped shape my capacity for compassion. I believe they also led me to seek out meaningful volunteer positions throughout university and afterward.

According to research, volunteering as a child has important benefits later in life. Volunteering promotes healthy choices, enhances development, teaches life skills, improves the community, and encourages a service ethic. A 1993 study (Benson and Roehlkepartain) found that children who volunteered just one hour a week were less likely to use alcohol and skip school. A 2002 study (Lewis) determined that volunteering helps children see themselves as significant in the lives of others and that it increases self-esteem, responsibility, and interest in learning. A 2003 study (Phalen) found that volunteering increases empathy, which deters negative behaviors.

There are marked factors to consider when searching for a volunteer position for your family or children. Safety and supervision are a chief concern, although children are often more capable than we give them credit for, and their opinions on projects should be included. It is important to think about a child’s skill level and give them tasks they can complete in a reasonable time frame.

So where can children volunteer in a place like Saigon? Unfortunately, current opportunities seem to be limited. Adults can often find openings at orphanages and hospitals and there are frequent charity fundraisers and bazaars, but chances for children to interact are finite. I am aware that many of the international schools discuss global issues, take on service projects, and host children-led fundraisers, but there seem to be relatively few ways for expats to engage in the community to tackle issues. I am still learning, and welcome any email feedback about volunteering opportunities in Ho Chi Minh City.   

Shannon Brown works in international education in Ho Chi Minh City and has a background in social work, public heath, and early childhood education.