Summer is here, the days are stretching longer, the sun is shining brighter and many kids are enjoying a break from school. A community food pantry full of senior volunteers may be the last place you would expect to see teenagers spending their summer free time. However, Catholic Parish Outreach (CPO), a program of Catholic Charities, the largest food pantry in Wake County, NC, is an exception.

Now that students have been out of school for a few weeks, CPO is seeing an uptick in inquiries from parents and teens. They’re finding a variety of opportunities for students to give their time and make their time away from school more meaningful. For parents, volunteering with their kids is an easy way to spend time together while giving back to their community.

Michelle Adams, a parishioner from St. Francis Catholic Church in Raleigh, spent an entire morning helping pack groceries with her three boys Alex, Andrew and Ryan. It was the first time volunteering for Michelle, while her boys knew about CPO from previous volunteer activities.

Volunteers lined up along a table, placing items one-by-one into bags and pushing them on down the assembly line. Among the volunteers, there was a noticeable age difference among those chatting on the busy assembly line. Claire Boles, a junior at Heritage High school, has been volunteering for three consecutive years. “My grandparents are leaders here and they volunteer all through the year, so I thought that this could be a good way to get community hours and get some good experiences,” she said.

Every day from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. volunteers work in the food sorting and repacking area, filling bags with vegetables or using carts to assist clients in taking groceries to their cars. There are many activities happening simultaneously, creating a busy environment. When a new volunteer comes in to lend support, the volunteer leaders and helpers appreciate the extra hands, regardless of their age or experience.

On Wednesday, June 26th, a group of young parishioners from St. Andrew’s Catholic Church arrived to pack bags of potatoes and help with food distribution. For many of them, this was not their first time visiting CPO. The group was part of their High School Youth Ministry (TYM), which encompasses community service with religious formation. The TYM group is already scheduled to visit CPO twice this summer.

Dee Leggard, a parishioner from St. Andrew’s and a junior high student, was among the volunteers. “I came to CPO before with my family and once with the youth group. I think it’s very important to see the ‘behind the scenes’ of how helping people works,” said Dee. “Also, I think it’s important to see how the community gets together to help the people in need.”

There are also volunteers who are not Catholic. They come for many of the same reasons, looking for ways to give back to their community. Makyra Wilson and her daughter Dedran Wilson are a mother and daughter team who have been working tirelessly to help their community, making frequent visits to the food pantry. Makyra said, “Volunteering is a great way to give back and teach my daughter the importance of helping others, plus it gives her something good to do this summer.”

Research has shown that teens who engage in community service are more responsible with higher self-esteem and resilience. Volunteering helps the teens gain new skills necessary for the job market such as leadership, communication skills, dependability, time management, and decision making. Teens who volunteer perform better at school and build a stronger resume for college and scholarship applications.

“CPO provides students a paper that details how many volunteer hours they contributed, which is often needed for school requirements and college admissions. However, what is most important is that we teach them the importance of helping others. Youth who volunteer are more likely to volunteer as adults and that has happened here,” said Jim Kaildosher, CPO volunteer leader.

Although some volunteer hours may be required, the young people are typically choosing to be involved in programs that have such requirements. The research data shows that youth get involved not only for personal reasons, but also for reasons that reach far beyond them as individuals.

“It’s good to have students here, Jim said.  Having them helping us packing food and giving the food to people who need it helps us a lot and benefits them to feel compassion for people in need,” Jim said. According to The Association for Professionals in Services for Adolescents, young people volunteering for their communities is a tremendous win-win situation for the young volunteers, the organizations and communities they serve. The benefits are reaped now, and in the future. Thanks to all our young volunteers helping us this summer and their parents and leaders.