By Julie Holdaway

Published in the Orange County Register on March 25, 2013

Special care is needed if you want to incorporate children into your nonprofit. The results are well worth the effort.

In March, not only do we celebrate mischievous green leprechauns, we also celebrate the ubiquitous green boxes of cookies and the many, many Girl Scouts who sell them.

Everywhere I have turned this month, there has been an industrious Girl Scout selling her wares and – according to the cookie box – learning skills such as goal setting, money management and ethics.

It paints a vivid picture of thousands of children volunteering in their communities.

There is a strong movement of getting kids involved in their communities. Many schools – even public schools – build community service hours into their curricula.  Nonprofits are creating opportunities to get children involved, hoping to build lifetime volunteers.

Second Harvest, for instance, is celebrating youth volunteers in March with the grand opening of Izzy's Corner, a place where children as young as 7 can pack foods and snacks for those who are needy.

"Izzy's Corner provides a meaningful volunteer opportunity for children whose concern for less-fortunate children compels them to do something to make a real difference in their community," said Nicole Suydam, chief executive at Second Harvest.

With more young people interested in community projects, nonprofits have to recognize that youth can be more vulnerable than the average volunteer, and sometimes more vulnerable than the clients.

According to Sarah Efthymiou at the Public Law Center in Santa Ana, the following are the legal basics to consider when working with youth volunteers:

  • Liability insurance: Make sure your liability insurance covers the activities planned within your volunteer program. Review your policy and talk to your insurance provider.

  • Screening process: The law is very prescriptive about screening requirements.  Make sure you have a screening process for all adults who work directly with children.

  • Accident-prevention procedures: Make sure you've though about anything that might be even remotely risky about your projects and the efforts that children do on your behalf. Provide explicit accident-prevention strategies in your project introductions and in written materials. Be ready to enforce compliance. For example, if closed-toe shoes are advisable when young people are working with tools or at the gardens, then you'll not only have to give advance notice of this, but turn away those who are dressed improperly.  Perhaps you can offer an alternate project for them. To increase safety, Second Harvest designed Izzy's Corner as a safe, enclosed place, located away from forklifts, pallets and near the warehouse's front entrance.

  • Parental consent: When children younger than 18 are involved, you need written parental consent. Your permission form will document not only the parent's permission for the child to partake in your activity, but it also should contain a promise that the parent will not sue your organization in the event that the child is injured as a result of carelessness. Note that the effectiveness of parental waivers is a fraught topic in the law. When challenged, some waivers do not hold up; nevertheless, they are a welcome place to begin.

Child labor laws: Child labor laws apply to volunteers as well as paid employees, so you should be aware of the time limits and prohibited activities the law imposes on youth volunteers.

Photo releases: In general, photo releases are not required by law for children. But there are always exceptions, especially for some of the vulnerable populations our nonprofits serve. When photographers are around for an event or perhaps marketing efforts, many nonprofits make it a practice to put a sticker or piece of colored painter's tape on the shoulders of children who shouldn't be photographed – whether because the laws protect them (i.e. foster kids) or because you don't have a photo release.

Working with children requires nonprofits to be creative.

Many nonprofits – including food pantries, parks and hospitals – have strict age limits that prevent the youngest volunteers from providing direct help.

But even charities with age restrictions can involve volunteers of all ages. The key is to develop special opportunities, such as those at Izzy's Corner. Someone Cares Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa cannot have children in its busy kitchen or even on the serving line. Nonetheless, each week, teams of young people are at the kitchen icing, decorating and serving cupcakes to the kitchen's guests.

If we create opportunities to involve our youth today, who knows what solutions they'll come up with tomorrow.

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