Martin Luther King Jr. Day spotlights millennials’ spiked interest in volunteer work

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The number of millennials giving back to their communities is on the rise, according to a local nonprofit, especially if the volunteer work is beneficial for their education and career goals.

HandsOn Greater Phoenix puts over 25,000 volunteers to work every year. HandsOn is a non-profit organization that matches volunteers with different jobs from homelessness issues to animal welfare programs around the area.

“We’re really seeing a lot more young people – middle school, high school, college-age students – coming out to volunteer,” says HandsOn Greater Phoenix President Rhonda Oliver. “I think people have notions in their head of what a volunteer looks like in America and what that experience looks like but it’s really ever-changing and evolving.”

Millennials are drawn to the group experience, says Oliver, because it’s a way for them to spend time with family or friends while also giving them the opportunity to meet new people.

Student volunteer Aiyden Lirange says he was encouraged to volunteer because his school rewards students who have a certain number of volunteer hours with special recognition and a sticker to put on their diploma.

Volunteer Carol Haueter says she started volunteering in order to spend more time with her grandson while also being productive and helping the community.

Oliver says the main challenge of attracting younger people to volunteer is pulling them away from technology, which HandsOn Greater Phoenix hoped to do by making volunteering a relevant and interesting experience.

Ted Simons: The MLK holiday is celebrated as a day of service across the country, and thousands of volunteers are out across Arizona today, including many younger people. A national study shows that almost 22-percent of millennials do some sort of volunteer work compared to nearly 26 percent of baby boomers. Producer Allysa Adams and photographer Rob McJannet and Sam Mena found out what's drawing the younger generation to service.

Allysa Adams: It isn't always exciting.

Volunteer: You are going to get a scalpel, flatten it and put it in here.

Allysa Adams: It’s challenging, but just about every opportunity effort has rewards.

Volunteer: Very nice.

Karen: When you come in and you feel it’s part of the team.

Allysa Adams: Lately, it seems more and more and more young people are stepping up to be part of volunteer teams.

Rhonda Oliver: We are seeing more young people, middle school, high school, college age, youth coming out to volunteer. The hope is that we cultivate them to becoming life-long volunteers.

Allysa Adams: As the president and CEO of Hands On Greater Phoenix, Rhonda Oliver and her team mobilize about 25,000 volunteers a year for hundreds of nonprofit schools and neighborhoods. On this day, about 20 volunteers are helping Project Cure pack medical supplies to ship across the world. It's a multigenerational group with some veterans and some newbies.

Rhonda Oliver: I think people have notions about what a volunteer looks like in America and what that experience looks like. It's ever changing and evolving.

Allysa Adams: Part of the uptick in volunteers is due to schools that mandate service in their curriculum. One national report shows that millennials will volunteer if it helps in their career or educational goals.

Volunteer: They told me to bring all this stuff out here.

Allysa Adams: That’s what brought 17-year-old Aiyden Lirange to this warehouse.

Aiyden Lirange: For my school we have a sticker on our diploma if we have a number of service hours. So I come out from time to time to do some hours.

Allysa Adams: He says the hard work looks good on college applications. And he admits, there are side benefits.

Aiyden Lirange: We feel motivated the rest of the day.

Allysa Adams: That motivation can be infectious. Carol Haueter and her 15-year-old grandson Alexander volunteer at Project Cure a lot.

Volunteer: This is an insulin syringe.

Allysa Adams: She was looking for something to do together during the long summer break.

Carol Haueter: I wanted an opportunity to do something that has meaning that was also fun.

Allysa Adams: Making the work fun is part of the challenge of working with the younger generation.

Rhonda Oliver: I think one of the challenges we are up against, especially in the age of technology, and so many things that have young people's attention. How do we make volunteering relevant? How can we meet a community need and make it interesting to our young people so we can compete in the marketplace for attention, so we can make volunteering more fun, hip, cooler.

Allysa Adams: Cue the music, the power tools, the team building competitions.

Volunteer: Joseph already made one, so if he beats you, don't feel bad. He has had more practice.

Allysa Adams: Millennials like a group experience. A Native American Connection, Hands On Greater Phoenix and Maricorp Vista member Nina Hiethaus is leading a craft night for seniors and young volunteers.

Nina Hiethaus: So you want to tie it here.

Allysa Adams: Hiethaus has found it difficult to get young people involved in service beyond school requirements.

Nina Hiethaus: I think one of the big reasons young people aren’t involved in volunteerism is because they have a lack of engagement. I don't know that, that's necessarily on the part of organizations as well as much as on the part of generational differences.

Allysa Adams: In one study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77 percent of young people say they are more likely to volunteer when they can use their skills and expertise to benefit the cause.

Volunteer: Expiration date is zero eight zero one.

Allysa Adams: Oliver says the organizations need to build on the younger generation strength.

Nina Hiethaus: Some of the things that we have been able to do is to cultivate projects as more of a technology component. Young people are digital natives. We have been able to utilize young people to work with older people who are not as comfortable with technology.

Allysa Adams: And this serves as another good motivation tool. That same study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows millennials volunteer if they think it will enrich their lives, especially when it comes to making personal connections. Whether that connection is with their generation or others.

Alexander Haueter: It’s nice to be out here with my grandma. It’s something nice to do together.

Allysa Adams: Without a doubt, the millennials learn from the older generation.

Aiyden Lirange: How hard they work. They never take a break. Like, my age, kids are lazy.

Allysa Adams: Regardless of generation, all people want to feel appreciated and know they are making an impact.

Volunteer: You are going to town there, girl.

Allysa Adams: And that may be motivation enough.

Volunteer: Want to grab that guy out? We have another one. We have another one waiting in the wings.

Ted Simons: Next on Greater Phoenix, for volunteer opportunities throughout the year for all ages you can check their calendar. You can sign up on their website, Tuesday on Arizona Horizon, we’ll hear about a new report on state university costs. And we'll look at a new collection of science fiction put together by ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination. Those stories Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon." That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. You have a great evening.

Rhonda Oliver: President and CEO, HandsOn Greater Phoenix
Nina Hiethaus: HandsOn Greater Phoenix
Carol Haueter: Volunteer, HandsOn
Aiyden Lirange: Volunteer, HandsOn

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