03/22/2012 12:36 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Take them seriously: Youth volunteers work to overcome age discrimination

Last summer Kelly Lovell decided to create her own charitable initiative. The Waterloo, Ont., native had been an active volunteer for three years and wanted to run a major fundraiser before she headed to university in the fall.

After founding "Dollars for Dreams" — which would raise money for Save the Children without any backing from other organizations — Lovell planned a gourmet bake sale at a local mall. All went smoothly until she took some regulatory forms to mall management in person.

"I started to get some problems because they realized how young I was," says Lovell, who was 19 at the time.

"People don't expect youth to have the abilities to do things like this, to be in the workforce, to be successful or organize events, and that’s huge discrimination right there."

As the latest national figures show youth engagement in volunteering surging ahead, Lovell's experience underscores the age discrimination many young Canadians are trying to overcome.

In her case, after repeatedly showing that she had met all regulatory requirements, Lovell said she got a call from the mall a day before her event and was told her sale couldn't go ahead. She then had to call the corporation which ran the mall and get them to override local management's decision.

"They just don't trust you. They always think you're up to something or that you don't have enough experience," she says.

Such barriers are exactly what Volunteer Canada is trying to help youth break down.

A report from the organization — which identifies itself as the national voice for volunteerism in Canada — found that youth are generally seen as being in need of services instead of being perceived as a group with skills that can contribute to volunteer initiatives. It also found a feeling among youth that their opinions and insights aren't valued, respected or taken into account.

Meanwhile, the latest figures from Statistics Canada's Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating released Wednesday show that today's youth are far from disengaged.

In fact, it found Canadians aged 15 to 24 volunteered more than any other age group in 2010 at a rate of 58 per cent. That beats the overall national rate of 47 per cent.

Despite the high rates of engagement, however, youth volunteers didn't put in as many hours as older Canadians.

"Young people are very engaged, but they contribute the fewest number of hours. We really need to make sure that they're getting what they want out of a volunteer opportunity," says Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada.

"We found that they feel discriminated against when they're looking for volunteer opportunities, there was assumptions made that they don't have the skills."

In trying to sustain youth volunteer efforts, Volunteer Canada recently worked with Manulife Canada to develop a suite of online tools which help tap into youth potential. They include a self-assessment tool that helps youth identify skills and interests they can apply to volunteering. A tip sheet on how organizations can become more youth-friendly will soon be online as well.

"Young people are highly committed and more tech-savvy than other generations," said MacKenzie. "There's a real opportunity here to take them seriously and offer them real responsibility in volunteer roles."

Malika Ladha knows the value of volunteering and continually advocates for youth to be taken more seriously in their efforts to help their communities.

"The major thing is not to have a position where youth are tokenized or patronized," says the 20-year-old, who is the chair of Alberta’s YouthVOLUNTEER! Society, which helps implement youth-based initiatives.

"It’s important to really provide them with that meaningful stuff."

For Ladha, the value of volunteering is undeniable, and the skills that are acquired in the process stand all youth in good stead.

"It’s really an opportunity to network, meet new people, develop new skills or improve old ones. I think that’s important as a student who is looking to eventually move out to the real world," says the Edmonton resident.

Young Canadians who don't volunteer as much need not feel overwhelmed by the array of opportunities that exist either, says Ladha.

"It’s important to realize you can't save the world in one day. It’s baby steps," she says.

"We all belong to some sort of community and it’s really powerful and fulfilling to be able to know that you've contributed to your community in whatever way possible to make it a stronger and better place."