Claire Arnold started Youth United two years ago. She says she felt like there was a gap between high school-aged students and other affinity groups at United Way of Greater Atlanta.
“So many students have innovative and fresh ideas, but don’t know what to do with them,” Arnold said. “Youth United is a home for those ideas.’”
Arnold said when she was in high school, volunteering had become second nature. There were always opportunities, and she had teachers and counselors who were always encouraging her and her peers to volunteer. It was a part of her life, and she didn’t realize there were students who didn’t know they could do the same thing. So, Youth United was formed.
The service corps is open to youth in grades nine through 12. The purpose of the group is to develop the next generation of philanthropic leaders by creating unique opportunities for them to make an impact in their community. It’s a group for high school students with a passion for serving their communities.
“We have over 500 general members now, and 16 board members,” Arnold said. “They are from dozens of schools all over Atlanta. We have members from every one of [the 13 counties United Way serves].”
For many students, it’s their first time volunteering. Youth United is their first introduction to philanthropy. It’s a starting point, and a place to foster a love for giving back.
Youth United Board Member Abby Challas said she was drawn to the group because it was targeted toward high school students.
“What makes this program unique and appealing is that it’s not a one-and-done situation. It’s a recurring commitment,” Challas, a 17-year-old senior at Grady High School, said. “I liked that Youth United is a program that is aimed toward high school students that are passionate about service.”
In a city the size of Atlanta, you can drive 5 miles in any direction and encounter people across all walks of life, Challas says. She liked being able to create service projects based on need.
“I have a voice,” she said. “We [Youth United] focus on how to solve problems, and I like how we as youth can do that.”
Youth United gives teenagers a chance to make decisions and participate in projects that can have a lasting impact on their community.
“Students walk away knowing more about their community, how to give back and what United Way is,” Arnold said. “Youth United does something different for every project, and our board meets monthly to plan the projects each year. They are the ones who think through what causes to rally behind, what the real impact is and why it matters to them as teens. It’s truly a student-led organization.”
These board members select a cause they want to help—all of which are in alignment with United Way—and this year the group decided they want to further United Way’s Child Well-Being agenda, Arnold said.
United Way of Greater Atlanta announced at the end of its last strategic planning meeting the plan to improve the well-being of children across its 13-county region. United Way’s Child Well-Being Index takes 14 different child, family and community measures to determine a CWB score for a specific zip code. The CWB heat map, which is featured on unitedwayatlanta.org, ranges from green to red—red is on the low-scoring end of the spectrum.
United Way works actively to make sure zip code is no longer a barrier for children across Greater Atlanta.
“Youth United kicks off each year with our annual meal-packing party and project,” Arnold said. “We do it big with a DJ, lunch, prizes and music. This past year, we packed 500 snack packs.”
Annually, Youth United hosts the College Workshop in partnership with LINC and Young Professional Leaders. The event grows each year, providing resources to students as young as sixth grade.
“We have projects usually monthly,” Arnold said. “There is a way for a student to engage every month of the year, and students plan most of them. They give input on all of them.”
Challas is a second-year board member and one of those students who helps provide input for each project. She didn’t know anything about United Way before joining Youth United, she says, but she said the group helped her build lasting friendships.
“It’s a great experience, and it’s really rewarding being able to help other people that can’t help themselves,” Challas said. “You do make lots of friends. I would say to anyone looking to join, even if you take a leap and do this and you don’t know anybody, you’re going to end up bonding over that experience with different people.”
All high school-aged students are eligible to join, and Arnold said, “anyone with a passion for volunteering and their community will be at home with Youth United.”
“And when you become a board member, you become a part of the United Way family,” Challas said. “That’s something to be proud of. Even though I’m 17, there’s so many important, driven people out there that want to make a change, and I get to be a part of that.”
To learn more about Youth United and how to join or donate, visit www.unitedwayatlanta.org/group/youth-united.