One of our most dedicated and reliable volunteers we have in our Children’s Department is young man who is going into 10th Grade. He comes to the library every Saturday precisely at 9 am. He has impeccable attention to detail and is able to manage a variety of responsibilities. He is quick to shelve and is eager to take on new tasks. As the new Head of Children’s Services, I was so happy to see that we had a resident of the community–someone who had used the library all throughout his life–now volunteering and making a difference at his local library. I was even more pleased when I found out that this young man is a person with special needs. If you already have a teen volunteer program at your library to help out in the Children’s Department, consider opening it up to teens with special needs. It may not be anything you’ve considered before, but I assure you the payoff is well worth it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way.
One of the first things I do after hearing about a volunteer’s interest in the library is to schedule an orientation meeting. This is a great opportunity for me to get to know the person who will be helping out at the library and learn about strengths and interests. You also want to make sure to keep track of the volunteer’s contact information, in case you should need to get in touch with him. The key here is to be sure to involve family members in this process–there isn’t anyone who knows this volunteer better, after all! During the meeting, though, I do my best to make sure I’m not having the parent speak for the volunteer. If I find that the volunteer can interact with me in a dialogue, I prepare myself with clear and concise questions, so as to avoid any misunderstanding. Depending on the special need, it may work more smoothly to direct comments and questions to the caregiver and then have the caregiver communicate the information back to the volunteer. But I’ve learned if I take the time to speak slowly and clearly and wait for responses, I usually have a positive interaction.
It’s also important to match the task with your volunteer’s ability. Some volunteers may enjoy for sorting things or organizing materials in numerical or alphabetical order. Others may prefer to be more active around the library and do things like cleaning, dusting shelves, or watering plants. Maybe your volunteer is interested in assisting with preparing craft materials or counting game pieces. It’s handy to keep an on-going list of various tasks of things you need done around the department. Then, as you learn about your volunteer’s strengths and interests, you can assign duties that you think will be a good fit. This is key–as you assign a task, you are also setting up an expectation. So, be aware of the expectations you are creating and if they are within the realm of your volunteer’s abilities to avoid any confusion or frustration.
Most importantly, be friendly and flexible. Whether it is you or another staff member who is charged with coordinating volunteers, remember that simple things like saying “Hello” and “How are you?” go a long way. Even if your volunteer does not always respond to you, this shows you acknowledge and value their presence. If you’ve noticed that your volunteer needs help with sticking to a task, consider offering him a timer to use while he is working. If you see signs that your volunteer is frustrated or having a bad day, offer him the chance to take a break or assign him a different task. This is another time when having a communicative relationship with your volunteer’s parent or caregiver is crucial. That person could provide information about your volunteer’s situation to help you to see the big picture of your volunteer’s needs. Bumps in the road will happen, but being understanding and reassuring, especially when working with patrons with special needs, is an absolute must.
Teens with special needs have unique challenges as they grow into adulthood, and may not be able to find work as easily as someone who does not have a disability. Because of this, volunteering is something many young people with special needs are eager to do. Holding a volunteer position gives that person the chance to obtain transferable skills he can take with him into the future. Beyond that, by offering volunteer positions to people with special needs, we promote inclusion in our work environment and give our volunteers the chance to be a valued, integral part of the community. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?