Teen volunteers at Children's Museum play and climb over barriers, physical and social

Youth Squad leader Natalie
Cherne helps a child over
a hill in the dinosaur room.
Photo by Samantha Timmerman

When a toddler started howling in front of Natalie Cherne, a Youth Squad leader at the Children’s Museum, she ran over to him and started making funny faces to cheer him up. It didn’t work.

Dealing with crying children is only one part of the job as a Youth Squad volunteer at the Children’s Museum.

“Some of the Youth leaders are trained to do stuff like that. We’re taught not to judge the parents at all, but just to try to help them out. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s nice for the parents to have someone else step in and give them a small break,” Cherne said.

The Youth Squad is a volunteer opportunity specifically for teens at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul.
Youth volunteers interact with kids and parents by doing things like working at the Spark Cart, organizing fun activities, and more.

Basically, teen volunteers are there to play with kids. One of the highly anticipated activities for youth volunteers is “Big Fun!” — an activity on the second floor in the middle of the day.

One Sunday in April, Acacia Ramberg, a 16-year-old Youth Squad volunteer from Stillwater, was helping out in Big Fun. The challenge of the day was balancing. There were more than 20 kids desperately trying to stay on top of their pogo sticks, with Ramberg trying to keep them from falling down. It was a sight to see.

Another fun activity for the volunteers is the Spark Cart, a booth where kids get to paint their faces. “It’s great to have fun with the kids like this,” said Marissa Reddig, a 17-year-old who has been volunteering at the Children’s Museum for four years.

The Youth Squad is also a leadership development program. It gives teens a chance to be someone kids look up to. Teens are taught how to deal with different situations and costumer service skills, said Jay Haapala, the volunteer manager at the museum.

“The only reason we have this program,” Haapala said, “is because it benefits the museum. I think it has a positive effect on the museum to have young people volunteering their time here.”

The museum focuses on recruiting teens who live in low-income St. Paul neighborhoods hit hardest by the recession – parts of Dayton’s Bluff, Payne-Phalen, the North End and Thomas Dale, or Frogtown, neighborhoods, Haapala said.

Ruth Lonvick, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, recruits volunteers from high schools in those neighborhoods. “One of my main goals working with the Youth Squad is to focus on closing the achievement gap in high schools,” she said.

Volunteer Marissa Reddig helps kids
paint their faces at the Spark Cart.
Photo by Samantha Timmerman

Kids from families with low incomes compete with kids from higher-income families for opportunities, Haapala said. At the museum, they want to ensure kids from low-income neighborhoods have the same volunteering opportunities as other kids. High-quality volunteer experience can help teens get jobs and into college.

“A higher percentage of our volunteers come from those neighborhoods,” Haapala said.

Haapala said getting a job is tough right now so volunteering is something fun to do during the summer that gets you skills important for a future job. “One of the things that makes the Youth Squad so unique is the atmosphere. The teens are the leaders. They aren’t assistants but instead are in charge of themselves,” Haapala.

Currently the Youth Squad has 91 members and all are welcome to apply. Haapala said it is competitive. Anyone is eligible to join, and will be put through an interview and a 5-hour training session. All that is needed to participate parental consent, and an application.

Volunteering with Youth Squad can have a positive and permanent effect on the volunteer. Take Olaad Ali for example. Ali is a former Youth Squad member and now works at the Children’s Museum as a visitor assistant. working in the galleries helping the families and kids.

Ali was thinking of majoring in something that has to do with kids and thought he would try out the Youth Squad and see if that’s what he really wanted to do. After only two months as a volunteer, he was hooked.

“It showed me a good side of kids that I had never seen before,”Ali said.

The best thing for Ali about being a volunteer at the Children’s Museum is making the kids happy. “It feels so great to put a smile on kid’s faces.”