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Never Too Young to Help


Whether you want to save a piece of rain forest, as a group of Irvine eighth-graders did, or have an abiding love of horses, as a South County teenager has, the world of volunteers has a place for you.

As never before, Orange County youngsters are offering their time and energy for community service, propelled by generosity, school service requirements and the increasing clout that volunteer work carries with college admissions committees.

"In the last year or so, we've seen much more student participation," said Lee Steelin, executive director of South Orange County Community Services, a Mission Viejo-based referral agency. "Before that, whenever students called, we would just get elated. Now we're finding that it's much more common."

Dozens of high schools in the county require some community service for graduation--including Laguna Beach High, Trabuco Hills High in El Toro, Valencia High in Placentia and Servite High in Anaheim.

In the last year, a middle school--Rancho San Joaquin in Irvine--made helping out part of the curriculum, requiring students to design and carry out their own civic-minded plans.

Summer is the perfect time for youngsters to leap into volunteering. The hours don't interfere with homework, and the work gives structure and purpose to days that otherwise might drag on. Many volunteer positions teach skills that teenagers can use to get paying jobs later on.

But parents and students sometimes complain that it can be hard to find organizations that will take teenagers as young as 13 and offer them interesting work that allows them to do more than sell candy to raise money.

Yet plenty of organizations in the county welcome young teens, and even younger students.

So how do the two get together?

Start with the youth's area of interest, linking up with a hobby or career goal, educators and volunteer organizers suggest. Youngsters who love books can generally find a slot shelving them at the local library, or helping run summer reading programs for children. Many libraries will take sixth-graders as volunteers.

Kids as young as 12 who love children or think of working with the disabled can help organize games and science projects at the Crippled Children's Society.

Love to be out in the sun all summer? A budding environmentalist? Help clean up wetlands in Huntington Beach, plant trees in Irvine, keep the beach looking sharp in San Clemente.

Can't find anything that seems to suit you? Make up your own project. This past year, musically inclined teens at Laguna Beach High designed a program for elementary school students who had lost their music instruction to budget cuts.

A group of eighth-graders at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School held bake sales and recycling drives, raising enough money to purchase and preserve a corner of Costa Rica's lush rain forest.

"We want to help and make a difference," said class member Blair Friedrich.

In some cases, students get so hooked on their community work that they end up putting in hundreds of hours more than expected.

Gwynne Langley, a junior at Santa Margarita High School, finished her 80-hour community service requirement last summer by working at the Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano, where she groomed horses and helped give riding lessons to disabled clients. Yet she continued to work at the center through the school year, and plans to keep on after graduation.

"If I gave it up I would really miss the people and animals I work with," she said.


Whom to Call

For more information on volunteer opportunities, try the following Orange County referral agencies:

* Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, Santa Ana

(714) 953-5757

or check out the Web site at

* South Orange County Community Services, Mission Viejo

(714) 364-6636

* Volunteer Exchange, Westminster

(714) 899-6845

* United Way of Orange County, Irvine

(714) 660-7600

Where to Go, What to Do

No matter what your area of interest, you can probably find volunteer work that fits:


* Orange County Animal Shelter, Orange: help veterinary, kennel and animal control staff; minimum age 13. (714) 935-6924

* Friends of Santa Ana Zoo: office help and gift shop volunteer needed; minimum age 16. (714) 953-8555


* Children's Museum at La Habra: gallery aide needed; minimum age 12. (562) 905-9693

* Capistrano Valley Symphony, Dana Point: ticket takers, office work, minimum age 15. (714) 240-8584

* Curtis Theatre, Brea: ushers needed; minimum age 14. (714) 990-7729

* Laguna Art Museum: clerical tasks, help with special events; minimum age 16. (714) 494-8971

* International Surfing Museum, Huntington Beach: setting up exhibits, helping with special events, mailings and clerical tasks; minimum age 14. (714) 960-3483 or 536-0157

* Irvine Historical Museum: guides, lecturers; minimum age 16. (714) 786-4112

* Orange County Chamber Orchestra, Costa Mesa: help with mailing, special events and children's activities; minimum age 14. (714) 839-4112

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