As summer approaches, students throughout the country are dreaming of days spent sleeping 'til noon and lounging with friends at the local pool. But if parents aren't careful, our children — especially our teens — can waste an entire summer without learning or accomplishing anything.

One of the easiest ways to avoid this summer brain drain? Encourage your teens to volunteer!

Why Should Teens Volunteer?

Yes, volunteer work looks good on college applications — but the benefits don't stop there. According to Simone A. Bernstein, Co-Founder and President of VolunTEENnation.org, students almost need to volunteer in order to obtain the skills and contacts that will help them succeed in the adult world.

"With the current labor market for youth, it is difficult for high school and middle school students to obtain basic job skills," Bernstein notes. "Volunteering offers teens a way to give back to their community, while gaining communication skills along with an opportunity to network, and acquire references for future employment, scholarships, and college applications."

In addition to gaining valuable skills and important connections, teens who volunteer discover new interests and passions and gain a clearer understanding of their goals for the future. Many also find that, through volunteer work, they learn to be more innovative and creative in their thinking.

Where Should Teens Volunteer?

While the benefits of volunteering for teens are well-documented, actual opportunities for teens to volunteer can be harder to find. Bernstein says that, often, there are "limited opportunities to volunteer on site under the age of 18 due to safety, security, and liability concerns."

But this doesn't mean that you can't volunteer if you're under 18 — it just means that you need to know where to look to find the opportunity that's right for you!

Local Shelters and Non-Profit Organizations

Homeless shelters, animal shelters, food banks, and many charities and non-profits like the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army rely on the work of volunteers to carry out their mission. Call local branches of these organizations to find out if teen volunteers are welcome in your area.

Searching databases at websites like VolunteerMatch.org or VolunTEENnation.org can also help teens to locate the right volunteer opportunity.

International Community Service Programs

Teens don't have to volunteer locally — an international community service program like Visions or Cross-Cultural Solutions offers middle- and high-school students the opportunity to gain life-changing perspective by volunteering around the world.

Virtual Volunteering

Transportation is often an issue for teens, so think outside the box! Bernstein suggests that "since teens have a comfort level with technology, they can offer to promote a non-profit through social media tools like Twitter and Facebook from their own computer."

Knit for Kids

By participating in the Knit for Kids program, teens can give the gift of warm, new clothes to needy children around the world. Knitting isn't difficult to learn, and the program is set up so that all you need to do is download a pattern, knit or crochet a sweater, and send it on its way.

Political Campaigns

Working on a campaign can provide teens with valuable insight into the political process. And since it's an election year, this summer is the perfect time to get involved in local efforts to elect the next President of the United States.

Create Your Own Volunteer Opportunity

Volunteering doesn't require that teens work within an existing program or organization, and teens shouldn't shy away from forming their own non-profit simply because of their age. High-school student Matt Pierce started Teenagers Care to raise money for wildlife affected by the Gulf oil spill, and VolunTEENnation was originally created when, at the age of 17, Bernstein was frustrated by a lack of information and opportunity for teens who wanted to volunteer in her local community.

"I initially started with a regional website and requests from teens throughout the nation motivated us to take the site national," she says. "We want every non-profit agency to find ways to include teens."

Teens have the time and the talent to make a real difference in the world, but Bernstein makes an important point — it is up to us to remind them, encourage them, and provide the right opportunities for them to do so.