There are few things more satisfying as a library programmer than putting together a program that meets multiple goals. All of our programs, almost by definition, either inform or entertain. But there is one series that can meet a vital community need, generate goodwill throughout the community, educate, entertain, address a hard-to-reach group of patrons—our teens, and do all that with no or minimal budget impact: providing Community Service Opportunities (CSOs).

Many teens are required to perform service. Our community, for example, requires community service hours for middle school, confirmations and bar mitzvahs, honor societies, Scouts, and more. Opportunities to obtain those hours are often scarce. During COVID CSOs dried up almost completely, yet teens were still required to meet the minimum hours of the respective organizations. We pledged to provide 100% of our teens’ needs (and we did). To do so, we created a number of COVID-designed projects which were either virtual or were “take-and-make”.

But regardless of COVID, libraries can and should provide CSOs. Here are some of the issues to address.

Need: Talk to your teens and their parents. Look at community social media pages. You are likely to find that there is a great need for CSOs.

Requiring Entities: Through your discussions with teens and their parents, you can compile a list (which will likely grow) of entities that require community service. Reach out to them and find out what their requirements are and whether your existing programs will qualify for credit. In our community we find that some entities will accept pretty much anything we sponsor; others are quite strict. Make sure you identify any program which will be unacceptable to an entity. The last thing you want is a teen to spend hours on a project or program only to have them (or their parent) come back and say that it “doesn’t count”.

Market: Having the CSOs is important; making sure the teens know you have them is vital. Make sure you distribute the list of opportunities through your regular marketing channels (newsletters, social media, etc.) but take special care to target teens and their parents. In addition, make sure the requiring entities know what you have to offer as they often will share lists of opportunities with the teens in their program.

Developing the CSOs: Your first step should be analyzing your resources. Are there multiple staff members who can oversee the program? Can your Friends or adult volunteers provide support? Is there funding available from community groups or grants?

Second, talk to your staff and see what their needs are. What programs are being presented which could use volunteers, either in preparation or “hands-on” at the program or event? What service would your staff like to provide that a teen could help with? Does a staff member have a project they would like help with? 

Third, reach out to the community and see if there are programs or events they would like to see at the library for which teens could volunteer. Scanning of a community group’s old photos and records, a community art project, assistance with a community fair that the library may be participating in: there are many community –based projects that the library can fold into a CSO.

Examples of CSOs: It is easy to find a plethora of CSOs that libraries across the country have developed. Here are some examples that we have created in our Library. Some were implemented before COVID; some during:

  • Teen Tech Tutors: Teens sit with patrons, mostly seniors, and help them with their iPhones, iPads, etc. that they got as gifts and can’t figure out how to work. Help ranges from downloading and setting up a specific app to how to turn the darn thing on. This is the program that we have received the best feedback on, bar none.
  • Storytime: Teens reading to the little ones.
  • Tots-to-Teens: Emerging readers reading to teens.
  • Lego Club: Teens help kids create with Legos.
  • Keva Plank Club: Teens help kids create with Keva planks.
  • Dot/Dash: Teens help kids learn to code using Dash and Dot robots.

Students Rebuild - This organization chooses a cause to support each school year. For every piece of art made related to the cause, the Bezos Family Foundation donates money to support the cause. (Example - 2019/2020 was the Hunger Changer. Teens made decorative recipe cards on behalf of our Library’s team. Bezos Family Foundation donated $6 to programs fighting hunger for each recipe card submitted).

Sunshine Bags for patients in our local hospital. We coordinated with the local Chamber of Commerce and two community groups to purchase bags, pencils, and activity books. Our teens stuffed the bags (including sharpening the pencils) and created get-well cards for the patients.

Adopt a Pet Tote Bags - Teens decorated tote bags to send to a local animal shelter.

Dog Toys for Charity: Teens created toys for dogs at the local shelter.

Pet Emergency Kits: Teens created emergency kits for the local shelter.

Love Letters for Literacy -  Teens create literacy kits for young children in need.

Social Media: We asked teens to create social media posts promoting the Library (this wasn’t as popular as we had hoped—we’ll try it again soon!)

#WeWereHere Project - Created by the Illinois Library Association, but they accept submissions by teens across the country. This project aims to document the teen experience during the pandemic. Teens can submit personal stories, video diaries, photo journals or other pieces of work to be uploaded to the #WeWereHere Project site. Service hours vary based on the chosen project.

Send a Smile Today - Cards sent to cancer patients across the US.

Kindness Rocks - Teens painted rocks with positive images/messages to add to our Stars of Hope window display.

Stars of Hope - Stars for our window aimed to spread positivity within our community. More recently, stars were sent to the Jagger Library in Cape Town, South Africa, which was destroyed by wildfires.

Holiday Cookies for the INN - Teens baked a dozen cookies each, which were brought to a local soup kitchen.

Sending Smiles - Teens decorated postcards to be sent to Ronald McDonald Houses across the country.

Veterans Day Thank You Plaques - Teens painted wooden plaques that were brought to a local VA Medical Center to thank veterans for their service. 

Reason2Smile - Teens made bracelets out of recycled beads to promote social awareness and support for a school in Kenya.

Holiday Cheer Cards – Teens hand crafted cards for our local hospital’s staff and patients.

Teen Think Tank/Teen Advisory Council - Opportunity for teens to have their voices heard in the library and brainstorm with us. 
Thank You Kits for Healthcare Workers - Teens decorated plastic tumblers with thank you cards for our local healthcare workers.

Special Needs: We run a lot of programs for our special needs patrons. Teens aid in preparing arts and crafts and provide hands-on help at the programs.
Storywalk: Teens helped prepare our storywalk.

Food Drives: Teens staff our lobby table and collect non-perishable food (usually coordinated with a large event like a concert). They have also collected socks for a local homeless shelter.

Lobby Table: In addition to food drives, teens have staffed a table in our lobby to distribute voter registration forms, blood donor forms, emergency preparedness kits, and more.

Research: Teens have helped us research our town’s history and helped us put together a list of all of our trustees and directors back to our founding.

Events: Teens have volunteered to help prepare arts and crafts for events such as our annual Dr. Seuss Birthday Bash, and have helped with large attendance events including Dr. Seuss, OceanCon (our Comicon), our Human Library Day, and many others. 

Certificates: We created a form Certificate which we give to the teens upon completion of their service. The teen completes the form; the staff member in charge of the program simply signs off.

Once you get started creating CSOs the list seems to never end. With some imagination on your part—and often with little or no budgetary outlay—you can provide your teens with meaningful experiences that fulfill their community service obligations, provides assistance to patrons in need, and provides you with programming the community will appreciate.

Tony Iovino is the Assistant Director for the Oceanside Library. He has been in charge of programming and marketing for the last six years. Before entering the library field, he was the head of litigation for a Long Island law firm. Tony is a published author and poet.