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Volunteering is one of the coolest activities around, according to teen surveys. Nearly three out of five American teenagers volunteer. And this Make A Difference Day is a great time to join the crowd. Gather some like-minded teens and follow these project guidelines from The Points of Light Foundation for a successful project.

(Sources: Teenage Marketing and Lifestyle Study, 1998; Giving and Volunteering in the United States, 1999, Independent Sector)

Step 1. Start by choosing a project.

Check out past projects or past honorees or consider community resources. List the skills, talents and resources of your group members. What kind of project would work well for your group - a focused, task-specific activity like a cleanup or something that involves more interaction with the people you're helping, such as a sports clinic for disadvantaged kids? Would your group prefer to organize a collection of food for the needy or a walk-a-thon or other fund-raiser to benefit a cause you care about? Consider your community. A good project meets a real need.

Step 2. Plan Your Project

Who will be involved?
Will you work with a Volunteer Center or other civic group? How many volunteers will you need and where will you find them? Which adults will help? (Plan on one person over 21 for every five people under 21.) Designate a leader and assign specific group members to be responsible for recruiting volunteers, arranging supplies, raising money, coordinating transportation, providing refreshments and publicizing the event.

Think safety.
Do you need permission slips for volunteers? Be sure to get emergency contact information for each volunteer. Use safe equipment and have a first-aid kit on hand.

Careful planning reduces stress.
Make sure volunteers know exactly what they are supposed to do, when and where to arrive, who to report to, whether food will be provided and when they can expect to finish. Do you need maps? What's the appropriate attire? Do volunteers need to bring any supplies? Are restrooms available? Will the event be held rain or shine, or is there an alternate plan? Make sure volunteers have as much information as possible.

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Step 3. Create a project timeline

Devise a chart listing everything that needs to be done to accomplish your goal. The key questions: What? Who? When? How? What exactly needs to be done? Be specific. Who is responsible for doing it? When is the deadline for this task? How will the task be accomplished? Break it into smaller steps.

Remember: To qualify for awards, a significant part of your project must occur on Make A Difference Day, a Saturday. If you organize a week-long food drive at school, for instance, you could conclude the drive by collecting canned food items as part of the admission to a Saturday sports event. And don't forget to submit your entry form by Nov. 16 in order to qualify for recognition and awards.

Step 4. Thank your volunteers

Your volunteers worked hard. Show them your appreciation. End the day with a celebration or a donated dinner; send thank-you cards or distribute certificates of appreciation.

Step 5. Follow-up

Will you visit those elderly people again? Will you return to the park for a spring cleanup? It can be fun to build traditions and work with the same people on projects again and again. Making a difference can start on Make A Difference Day, but it doesn't have to end then.

Great Tips To Consider

Raising funds and supplies for your project
* Run a pledge drive at school.
* Ask small businesses to donate money, supplies or food. Lots of businesses are willing to help if they understand the cause they'll be supporting.
* Contact the public relations or community relations department of large businesses and ask them to get involved. Acknowledge their help on fliers, in press releases and in welcoming or closing remarks on the day of your project.
* Approach local pizza chains and warehouse grocery stores about donating food or supplies in exchange for acknowledging their help.

Volunteer recruitment and publicity
* Display fliers or posters anywhere you think volunteers might see them: schools, houses of worship, community centers.
* Use your school newspaper. Run an ad with all the details of the project and contact information for volunteering. Write a guest editorial seeking volunteers. Suggest a news story on your cause.
* Working with your English teacher or someone from your local Volunteer Center, distribute a press release to local TV and radio stations as well as daily and weekly newspapers at least one or two weeks in advance of your project. See Publicity section, for help.

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Critical elements for success
* Your project should reflect the community's needs. Reach out to the people who know your college town best: schools, hospitals, churches, community groups, service organizations. Consider their suggestions.
* Choose a project that will be meaningful for both the volunteers and the group or agency helped. For example, agencies working with volunteers on a one-time basis sometimes request help with a simple, one-shot project ‹ such as stuffing envelopes. Even this can be meaningful to students if they get the chance to work alongside agency clients. Meeting the needy population may encourage students to volunteer again.
* Hold an orientation and training session for volunteers as close to Make A Difference Day as possible. Explain the purpose of the agency you¹re working with and provide information about its clientele. Describe the goal of the Make A Difference Day project; outline specific tasks for the day. Make sure everyone has an assignment with clear instructions and knows how, where and when to arrive.
* Allow time for reflection after the project is completed. Discuss what happened, its signficance and possible follow-up activities.
* Evaluate the experience. What worked for the agency, and what worked for volunteers? What problems arose? How can future service events be improved?

More In Make A Difference Day

Make A Difference Day, the largest national day of helping others, is sponsored annually by USA WEEKEND Magazine and its 800 carrier newspapers. Make A Difference Day takes place on the 4th Saturday in October each year.