The following article was written by VISIONS, and published by “Holistic Parenting Magazine.”

The Importance of Cultural Learning & Community Service Work for Tweens and Teens 
August 2015

As parents, we have the privilege of experiencing the different stages of growth alongside our children, and with each stage—from toddlerhood to the teenage years—comes a whole new set of challenges and rewards. We watch them learn how to feed themselves, walk, read, tie their shoes, make friends, and the list goes on. They survive and thrive through the stages of life, and before we know it, like everyone warns, the time flies by faster than we ever imagined. One day— wham—they hit the tween and teen years.

These are the years that many parents fear; the ones that other parents warn us about, when the kids retreat into their rooms and away from us, and they stay mad at us for days on end, right?

The middle and high school years are an exciting time of tremendous growth, both physically and emotionally, and while many students thrive right through, some struggle with self-esteem, the social pressures of trying to fit in, and the challenges that come along with academics. It’s a time when, to the child, the world seemingly revolves around him or her, and it’s often up to us as parents to offer a glimpse of the bigger picture.

For both the thrivers and the strugglers and all in between, this is a great age and stage to give kids an opportunity to participate in community service work and open the doors to travel experiences. Through international community service based summer programs, the combination of service work and cultural immersion can be an enlightening, exhilarating, and empowering experience that helps spark a sense of global awareness and a drive to help others that often lasts a lifetime.

Through my experiences working with high school and middle school students, here are some of the things that a summer of service and culture can lead to:

Making a Difference

Many tweens and teens have an innate and authentic drive to make a difference. They have big dreams and big hearts,
and they pounce on an opportunity to help others. Through some summer community service programs, participants enjoy the challenge of construction projects, and the social impacts of working with children and elders. Along with hard work comes a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done.

Expanding Horizons

Many kids are ready for the thrill of heading off to cultures that are exceptionally different from their own. They have a drive to be involved in experiences that transcend the pressures of high school life. Summer service and immersion programs allow them to experience other cultures first- hand, learn new traditions, and understand that there’s a big world out there that’s just waiting to be discovered, at least by them.

Making New Friends

Through international summer programs, teens have the opportunity to meet other kids from all over the world who share a passion for doing something different and making a difference. On some programs, students come on their own, which means the group dynamic begins on Day One, and there can be an ongoing emphasis on a family-like and inclusive experience. It’s also an escape from social media and other virtual connections, so kids can truly develop relation- ships with their peers, leaders, and local community members.

A Vacation from Technology

There’s no doubt that technology has many kids in a firm head lock. Although there is a time and place for it in the school system, many kids spend hours glued to screens out- side of school. Once immersed in a host community, working and playing hard, they find there’s no time for the tech, and hopefully programs won’t allow this distraction. If the program is run with enough structure, activity, and engagement, most kids don’t even miss it, as they are too busy being immersed in a different culture.

Building Confidence

High school years can be full of social and academic challenges, and for some kids, self-confidence is hard to muster. Through immersion in different cultures, by working on projects in areas of great need, and by surrounding themselves with a new group of kindred spirits, these summer programs can be extremely grounding and uplifting at the same time. They work towards shared goals, and they see the end results, not only through completed projects, but also through the eyes of grateful community members. They often return with renewed levels of confidence.

Improving Languages

Some summer service organizations include language immersion programs that are perfect for those who are interested in furthering their Spanish and French skills. Partici- pants often live and work in communities with those who speak little or no English. These day-to-day conversations are a great complement to classroom language studies, and by learning other languages, kids are opening doors to international careers and experiences in the future.

Building Gratitude and Empathy

Engaging in robust and impactful projects combined with learning to walk in others’ shoes while living in and working with a community is extremely humbling. Kids often become more grateful for all they have, more empathetic to the human condition, and more inclined to become active members of communities wherever they go.

Building Life Skills, Grit, and Determination

Some international community ser- vice programs focus on construction projects, which both girls and boys often find very rewarding. Contributing to these projects can be a challenge, and there’s an enormous sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work, especially when it’s for those in need. This in turn adds a boost to the confidence levels. And since they are learning building techniques and tool use from experienced carpenters, they are adding to their life skills.

Developing Global Connections

Unlike the teen tour model, some community service based adventure programs are rooted in the communities in which they work, meaning that they are actively involved in neighborhood life and engage with local people. It is rewarding to make new friends in communities where the locals are very welcoming and eager to learn more about visiting volunteers. More than a sleep away camp, this committed time in a community allows real friendships and understanding can grow.