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5 Teens Who Are Helping Others Online

Simone Bernstein, 20
Simone illustration
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Illustration by Ian Keltie

St. Louis, Missouri

It was back in 2004 when Simone, then 12, wanted to step up and volunteer. "I asked everyone I knew for leads and searched online, but there were no listings of local groups with opportunities for people my age," she says. Through a family friend, Simone finally learned of the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, a nonprofit agency that provides a safe haven for abused children. "I assisted with art projects, played games with the kids and worked at fundraising events," she says. Five years later Simone was eager to move on to a new job, "but there was still no information," she says. "It was so frustrating."

After finishing her junior year at high school, Simone spent the summer creating StLouisVolunteen.com, a comprehensive one-stop website for tweens and teens wanting to pitch in. She enlisted her Web-savvy brother, Jake, then 14, to design the site, while she hit the phones in pursuit of organizations that needed help. "Food banks and homeless shelters are great, but I wanted other options," she explains. "I called everywhere and was amazed at what I found—a music school where volunteers can give guitar lessons to kids, a tech service where teens can learn to repair and rebuild old computers, even a junior firefighter program."

Simone also discovered that many groups simply didn't have youth programs, either because they'd never thought of it or they had no one to supervise them. Soon she was figuring out solutions. She worked with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to create jobs for teens on Family Day by having them help children on craft projects. She also urged organizations to set up junior boards, giving young volunteers a chance to get more deeply involved with fundraising and overall planning. "Kids tell us they're surprised by how many possibilities there are and how much they can contribute," she says.

Now a sophomore at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Simone still oversees the site. Users can search by job category or age; if nothing fits their interests, they can fill out a match form and Simone or Jake will contact them when the right gig comes up. When they hear about a new position or about fundraising events like a race or bingo night, Simone and Jake send out the news on Twitter. "I update it sometimes after school," says Jake, 18. "But my sister is really great at the feed and does it several times a day between classes. Our followers are growing exponentially." Last year the site got 1,500 kids to pitch in, and Simone is planning to soon launch a national site, VolunteenNation.org. "Kids have the time, energy and motivation to volunteer," she says. "Groups that figure that out can really reap the benefits."