Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Preparing Youth With Disabilities for Volunteer Service as Adults


John G. Smith

Ann L. Mavis

Julia Washenberger

Individuals engaging in voluntary service have much to offer the community, and the experience of volunteering has much to offer those who provide such service. The youth of America have long engaged in community service activities through churches, scouting, and a myriad of other youth organizations, as well as on their own or with their families. With appropriate opportunities and support as necessary, youth and young adults with disabilities can join their peers in contributing to their communities and enriching their own lives by participation in voluntary service.

Despite improvements in special education services for transition-aged youth with disabilities, they continue to have great difficulty in accessing postsecondary educational programs, finding meaningful, if any, employment, and becoming active and visible members of their communities following high school (Johnson, D.R., et.al., 1996). Youth and young adults with disabilities need encouragement and support to become involved in all types of activities that will foster their success in later life. Involvement in service activities in the communities where they live has the potential to provide many benefits, both to youth with disabilities and to their communities. To ensure such benefits occur for both parties however, it is important that service activities be chosen and arranged to match the capacities, support needs, and interests of each individual. This is the key to ensuring that volunteer and service activities truly support youth in making a successful transition to adult life, while also allowing the communities where they live to benefit from their efforts and gifts.

There are several ways for youth with disabilities to become connected to and have successful experiences with community service activities. One is to include activities of community service as part of a student’s educational plan. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (United States Code, Chapter 33), the general purpose of special education services is to prepare youth with disabilities for “employment and independent living.” The Act further stipulates that this broad end should be pursued in the context of each student’s unique strengths, interests, and needs for support. As students with disabilities become adolescents and young adults, it is good practice for their education plan to become increasingly focused on their post-graduation plans. For youth planning to enter employment upon graduation from high school, including opportunities to be of service to the community as part of the school day can provide new avenues to pursue interests, develop skills, and gather experiences that will be readily useful in becoming employed as adults. In fact, activities of community service may provide a more useful experience in developing skills that will lead to employment of personal interest for a particular student than the limited range of paid work experiences many school transition programs are able to generate.

Eccles (2001) and McLaughlin (2000) have studied youth and the organizations that serve them for several years. As a result of this research, they have identified several characteristics of effective youth service organizations. While neither McLaughlin nor Eccles focused on youth with disabilities in particular, many of their shared conclusions describe the characteristics of other “mainstream” programs that have been successful in the inclusion of persons with disabilities. As community service activities take on the following characteristics, they will also serve as effective development activities for youth with disabilities, and support these youth as they prepare to assume meaningful lives as adults: 

  • Community service activities need to offer opportunities for skill development. According to McLaughlin (2000), youth most value those programs that offer challenges, call on youth to use their skills, have a clear focus, utilize multiple teachers, and include an “embedded curriculum.” The best community service opportunities for youth with disabilities will be those that are able to recognize and respond to their diverse talents, skills, and interests, and are committed to helping youth develop valued skills that will lead to additional opportunities, including paid work positions. 
  • Community service activities for youth with disabilities need to support feelings of self-efficacy, and “mattering.” Eccles (2001) has noted that a critical element in activities focused on youth development is “youth-empowerment and responsibility-taking” through offering youth meaningful challenges. As youth have success in being of real service to others, they will learn that their efforts matter, and more importantly, that they, as youth, matter to the larger community. McLaughlin (2000) adds that community activities can assist youth to develop this sense of self-efficacy, as programs build in cycles allowing youth to practice skills, perform, and then receive ongoing feedback and recognition for their efforts. Community service activities that provide such support to youth can be an incredibly powerful force in helping youth with disabilities to see themselves as valued members of their communities, to develop confidence in their abilities to “make a difference” to others, and to build attitudes that will fuel a personal sense of self-determination.
  • Community service activities need to provide youth with disabilities the support they need to be successful. Both Eccles (2001) and McLaughlin (2000) emphasize that all youth need environments that provide them with a sense of belonging, are warm and caring, include adults who are genuine in their concern for youth, and consistently afford emotional safety for everyone involved. This type of support is of particular importance to many youth with disabilities. Organizations interested in including youth with disabilities in service activities need to ensure a service environment that is healthy and safe, have clear rules and boundaries, and provide an age-appropriate structure that promotes mutual support and a “pro-social” environment. In addition, community service programs need to be committed to providing personal attention to all volunteers, and be flexible in shaping the experience to meet the needs and goals of each volunteer. For youth with disabilities, this may include coordinating the volunteer experience with the youth’s school program and his/her family, who each may have expert knowledge of a youth’s interests and the support needs that will make it possible to be successful in a volunteer experience.

Youth and young adulthood is a time when it is important to build the relationships and develop the skills that will translate into success in adult life. Instilling an attitude that values service to the community, while developing useful skills and a sense of making a difference to the community, cannot be underestimated in contributing to successful adult lives for all youth, but especially for youth with disabilities. Schools, community organizations, governmental agencies, parents, and youth themselves need to become aware of the opportunities available for youth with disabilities to participate in volunteer activities, and to make the commitment to support the participation of youth with disabilities in these activities. In this way we will develop a system where everyone benefits, and where youth with disabilities will feel valued and will contribute to their communities.


  • Eccles, J. (2001, April). Current youth development research. Presented at the Youth Development Programs Make a Difference: Bridging Research and Practice.
  • Johson, D. R., McGrew, K., Bloomberg, L., Bruininks, R., & Lin, H. C. (1996). Post-school outcomes and community adjustment of young adults with severe disabilities. Policy Research Brief, 8(1).
  • McLaughlin, M. (2000). Community counts: How youth organizations matter for youth development. Retrieved from http://www.publiceducation.org
  • P.L. 105-17. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as amended in 1997.