Antidote to Learned Helplessness: Empowering Youth Through Service

June 25, 2010
Allison Mueller
A woman talking to another woman and writing something in a notebook.

A powerful practical reclaiming strategy for youth at risk is to tap their potential for service to others. This counters a sense of learned helplessness.

The term learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975) comes to mind when I think about when I began working with troubled youth more than 20 years ago. We often spoke about how different things would be when the youth left protected therapeutic settings and went out into the real world. Many times, people wanted to volunteer and/or donate to the “poor, unfortunate” children. The youth were very adaptable and some played into the sympathies of the well-meaning donors. We recognized that the role of the helpless individual was not productive to our work with youth. The poor me syndrome needed to be readjusted, so that our residents would look at others who maybe had things worse than themselves and could use their help. Recognizing that young people had a lot to give and should not always be on the receiving end, many youth-serving agencies developed a piece within their program which focused on volunteering or service learning.

One example of this is Chaddock School in Quincy, Illinois—a child care agency for at-risk youth. In her article, At-Risk Youth Find Meaning in Service Projects, Anita Magafas (1991) highlights more than seven years of service projects. Dr. Magafas emphasizes that the basic element in any project must be real need. Projects cannot be contrived, artificial, or make-work, but must be a genuine response to meeting human needs. The first volunteer project was a mock disaster drill, assisting emergency service in testing their preparedness. Other projects over the years included various endeavors, such as assisting with physical education for a head start class, working with a foster-grandparent program with vets from a Veterans Home, helping with Special Olympics, and taking care of dogs and cats in a shelter, to name just a few.

In my experience as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist at Uhlich Children’s Home in Chicago, volunteering for our youth was an important part of our overall program. We did small one-day projects like collecting food for a food pantry or delivering meals and visiting with shut-ins over the holidays, but we also had projects that were ongoing. Our youth volunteered at a shelter for cats—grooming, changing water, and playing with the animals. Since many of our youth came from impoverished backgrounds and were removed from their homes, volunteer projects which involved delivering or serving food or visiting with cats in a shelter or seniors in a nursing home had special meaning for them.

One of our most successful volunteer activities was with a local senior nursing home. We had an idea of what we had hoped could be gained by volunteering with the elderly, but we could not have anticipated all of the benefits the youth received, especially for those deemed the most troubling. We found over time that the youth who were most problematic within the residential program were often the best volunteers or helpers. The same qualities that caused problems in the residence made them successful with our senior citizens. The youth with inexhaustible energy and an outgoing nature to the point of being the center of attention connected best with the seniors. They easily approached the seniors and started up conversations undeterred by a physical appearance that may have caused a more timid youth to hesitate. These youth brought an energy that was contagious to the seniors with whom they came in contact. We started our senior program very slowly, doing bingo twice a month. From there, we challenged our youth to be more creative and to make our visits more interesting for both the seniors and themselves. Although the youth who visited the seniors changed due to discharge—either to home, independent living, or foster care—the program went on for years.

Throughout the years, the youth ran game nights, organized a casino, played cards, put on talent shows, had the seniors judge a baking contest, worked on arts and crafts together, organized outings such as fishing and picnics, and served dinner to the seniors at our residential facility. The youth took more and more responsibility for the planning and preparation for our visits. We reached a point where the youth had senior friends whom they considered regulars for our activities, often saying things like, “I wonder if Bea and Joe will be there tonight?”

What was most interesting were the connections or parallels the youth made with their own situations and the one in which the seniors were in. They talked about the things that happened in the van ride home, “Did you see Mary eat Joe’s cake?” or “Betty got mad and threw the dominoes down and stormed out.” Initially they were surprised to see behaviors like their own coming from adults, but soon they realized that in many ways the seniors were just like them. As time went by, they gravitated towards specific seniors in the group and began sending letters and bringing little gifts.

As we drove to the senior home on the nights of our visits, the van would be loud, with the normal teasing and bickering going on; but the minute we walked through the door of the home, all that stopped. All were on their best behavior and reminded each other of appropriate behavior. Often these were the youth that staff said had no self-control, but during those visits, we saw a different side to the child they described. This would appear to reflect the real resilience and adaptability of these youth. Once back in the van it was like a switch turning back on and the teasing began again. They seemed to intuitively know when it was appropriate to use their survival skills, yet could adapt to an environment that demanded more from them.

The ride home was a perfect time to talk about what they had experienced, enjoyed, and wanted to do the next time. Although we had all of the typical therapy components to our program, I learned that it is not so much what we can do for our youth but what they can do for themselves. Through even the small projects, you could see a sense of pride and ownership, such as not allowing graffiti on the garage door they had just painted or keeping others from walking through their garden.

In Re-educating Troubled Youth, Brendtro, Ness, and Nicolaou (1983) note that in successful helping projects, students must perceive that they are in fact meeting some genuine human need. Furthermore, since many troubled youth have been deprived of positive interpersonal relationships, projects involving people-to-people service is preferable to depersonalized or more abstract helping. They further state that as these young people become involved in community service and person-to-person helping projects, they become a valuable resource instead of a liability.

In No Disposable Kids, Brendtro, Ness, and Mitchell (2001) assert that service learning can teach pro-social values to youth with self-centered and antisocial lifestyles. In one particular service project, the troublemakers caused no trouble at all but excelled in service.

What’s the Reality of Youth Volunteering?

According to America’s Teenage Volunteers (1997), volunteering is an activity most likely cultivated early in childhood and during early teenage years:

  • 59% of teenagers 12-17 volunteered in the past year
  • These 13.3 million teen volunteers gave an estimated 3.5 hours per week
  • Total 2.4 billion hours of volunteering

Noted in the West Virginia University Extension Service’s Treasure of the Trail, Youth as Volunteers (1993), the Search Institute study of some 46,000 young people titled The Troubled Journey found that youth who serve others are less likely to be involved in at-risk behavior. Out of 20 at-risk indicators, boys who serve one or more hours per week average 2.9 indicators, compared with 3.4 indicators for boys who spend no time serving. Girls who serve average 2.2 indicators compared to 2.9 indicators for non-servers.

From the above statistics, there appears to be clear evidence that there is a correlation between volunteering and reducing risk behavior.

A 1992 Gallup poll (commissioned by the Independent Section) reports that from 1,000 interviews, the three reasons most frequently cited for teenagers volunteering were:

  1. They felt it important to help others (59%)
  2. They felt compassion for people in need (49%)
  3. They could do something for a cause that was important to them (46%)

Knowing the motivations of youth for volunteering can benefit adults involved with planning meaningful projects with youth.

Volunteering Benefits for Youth

From the Treasure of the Trail, Youth as Volunteers (1993) study—benefits from volunteering that the teens themselves cited were:

  1. Learned to respect others
  2. Gained satisfaction from helping others
  3. Learned to be helpful and kind

Other benefits the study noted were:

  • Developing new social skills
  • Strengthening decision making
  • Nurturing an ethic of civic responsibility

In What Would We Do Without You? A Guide to Volunteer Activities for Kids, Kathy Henderson (1990) highlights some of the key benefits for youth. By volunteering yourself for projects in which you can expect to develop your natural talents and interests, or from which there is an emotional or physical return, you will be motivated to do and give your best.


  • Learn new skills or discover they have a knack for a certain type of work
  • Practical experience in the career they are thinking about pursuing, e.g., Law Enforcement Explorers, Candy Striper
  • Develop leadership skills
  • Develop realistic perceptions

At Chaddock School in Quincy, they reported similar benefits for the at-risk youth volunteer. Youth gained employment skills and experienced relevant learning. By participating, symptomatic behavior was overcome and potential to stay in school was increased when service learning projects were incorporated into the treatment program (Magafas, 1991).

The physical and emotional benefits of volunteering cannot be underestimated or really calculated. According to Luks (1988), there is something that frequent volunteers refer to as the helper’s high. This includes warm feelings, increased energy, greater calmness, and enhanced feelings of self-worth.

When we look at any prevention or intervention strategy or program, no one stands alone. A youth often has had individual or family therapy along with skill classes and they may also be on medication. The role of service learning to build a youth’s self-esteem and social skills cannot be underestimated as a core part of prevention and intervention.

We often look for the newest, most innovative intervention strategies for working with troubled and at-risk youth. But going back to basics may be the best choice as “the best way to help ourselves is to help others.”

How do we really measure the benefits of volunteering? In such areas as music, movies, and literature, we use the test of time. Will this stand up over time? I use the same measure in my own life. In one year or five years from now, will this actually matter? I have had youth come back to visit after they have become young adults. They always talk about the things they remember from when they were there, the things that had an impact on them. In a typical conversation, they mention the sports team on which they played. The ones involved in volunteering say, “Remember when we used to visit the senior home? Do you still do that?” And they’ll ask if a certain person is still there. Along with the statistical measures, anecdotal evidence also shows that volunteering or service learning appears to stand the test of time.

Volunteering has benefits for everyone, but it seems especially beneficial for our at-risk youth or youth in residential programs who are often on the receiving end of volunteering and donations. They can easily develop the institutional mentality—a dependence on adults and the services rendered. By volunteering, they can tap into their own talents and skills, beginning to become the givers rather than receivers.

Alison Mueller is a professional staff instructor with the Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc. She may be reached at

Brendtro, L., Ness, A., & Mitchell, M. (2005). No disposable kids. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
Brendtro, L., Ness, A., & Nicolaou, A. (1983). Peer group treatment: Its use and misuse. In L. Brendtro & A. Ness, Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment (pp. 206-230). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Henderson, K. (1990). What would we do without you? (A guide to volunteer activities for kids). Crozet, VA: Betterway Publications.
Independent Sector. (1997). America’s teenage volunteers. Retrieved September 12, 2004, from
Luks, A. (1988, October). Helper’s high. Psychology Today, 39-42.
Magafas, A. (1991, January/February). At-risk youth find meaning in service projects. Illinois Parks and Recreation, 22, 19-20. Springfield, IL: Illinois Association of Park Districts. Retrieved September 12, 2004, from
Seligman, M. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
West Virginia University Extension Service. (1993). The troubled journey. In Treasure of the trail, youth as volunteers, 93(3), 1-2.

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