Meet Simone Bernstein, founder of Volunteen Nation

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When she was seventeen, Simone Bernstein founded St. Louis Volunteen, a website to help local teens find volunteer opportunities. In 2012, that website grew to become Volunteen Nation, a valuable online resource that connects young people with community service opportunities around the United States.

Simone is now twenty-three and headed to medical school. She talked to Like A Boss Girls about starting the website, what it’s like working with her brother, and where things are headed in the future as she steps into a new role.

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What were the first steps you took to start St. Louis Volunteen?
Well, it was a very simple website. It looked more like an Excel spreadsheet.  All we needed was a small amount of money. We had $48, which went toward purchasing the domain name and buying the hosting. We put it online in a very simplified format to make it easy for young people in the St. Louis area to find volunteer opportunities. To find those volunteer opportunities, we called non-profit organizations in the local community to see if they were interested in bringing youth onboard as volunteers. If they were hesitant, or worried about safety, security, or liability concerns, which is common for non-profits—some don’t take volunteers under age 18—we encouraged them to realize the benefits of youth, and how motivated, dedicated and energized these kids are, and hope that they’d bring them into their organization.

At what point did it grow into a national organization, and how did that happen?
The local site launched in July, 2009, and we received so many positive responses from youth within our community that we realized something needed to be done nationally.  We had so many questions from young people that were coming to our site wondering if there was one like it in their own community. My brother and I and a variety of youth that were involved in our local site decided that we needed to take it national. So in March of 2012, we launched VolunteenNation.org. It was incredible to see the number of youth that not only wanted to get involved with volunteerism, but were also interested in encouraging organizations in their communities to understand the benefits of youth volunteers.

What is it like working with your brother?
It can be challenging at times. He’s two years younger—but we both have very different skill sets, so it’s neat to be able to collaborate and work together to grow the site. I’m really interested in partnership and development of the organization, and he has great technical skills and is majoring in computer science in college. It’s fantastic to be able to work with someone with such different skill sets and interests. We are siblings, and we do fight over small things, but it brings us together to be able to run the organization and grow and develop it over time.

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What has been the biggest challenge of running Volunteen Nation?
One of the hardest things for me is that I’m twenty-three years old now, but I look like I’m fifteen. I look young. I find that when I walk into meetings, a lot of times, they’re surprised that I am young, and that I’m working on a non-profit organization that has such a national scope.  Sometimes it’s really about encouraging these adults to realize the potential of youth and help them understand that although I may be young—I started this organization when I was seventeen years old—we do have an idea. It’s a simple idea that has really gravitated so many young people into an interest and passion in volunteering. It’s just getting over that first hurdle of making them realize that we can be trusted as young people and you have the potential of growing the organization and making a change.

What are the plans for the future of the website?
The important thing about Volunteen Nation is that it’s a youth-led volunteer-driven organization, and we really want it to be led by youth and run by youth—everyone under the age of 25 years old, as categorized by Youth Service America, fits under our branch as a young person. It’s important to us that we never pay someone to run the site, it’ll always be our group of ten core youth leaders and 375 Volunteen Nation ambassadors that take a role in running our site and leading it every day. We want a young person to be able to talk with another young person about the importance of volunteering, rather than a fifty year old explaining the importance of volunteering to a twelve year old.

What are your plans for the future?

When I start medical school in August it’s important to me that I take a step away from the website in terms of the daily administrative tasks, and play a role on the board of directors instead. I’m very excited about that. It’ll allow other people to lead within the organization and grow it to a new level with creative ideas, which really excites me and motivates me. That’s what’s really important about our organization—allowing others to gain beneficial skills for running a non-profit organization, like I learned when I started it at seventeen. In the future, I hope to be able to incorporate my interest in the sciences and nonprofits and go into a career related to public health.

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When you talk to young people, how do you encourage them to volunteer?
There are so many angles that we take. One is that they develop so many new skills and interests when they find a volunteer opportunity that relates to them. Hopefully, they will not just be interested in volunteering once, but continuing to volunteer at that organization over their lifetime, or over a long-term period of time. For example, if they like to write, we encourage them to approach non-profit organizations about writing in their newsletter or about doing their social media. There are so many creative ways that young people don’t realize they can step into an organization and volunteer and actually help them make a difference.

Number two, we also encourage them to volunteer because it benefits them in terms of their resume and their future. They can have the potential of not only gaining some sort of position of leadership within the organization, whether it’s a youth professional network that they have, a youth board, or even the board of directors later in life.  It’s a great resume builder, and it’s something people don’t think about. It’s hard to get a job when you’re under the age of sixteen, so  why not start volunteering and gain skill sets that could lead to a position at a nonprofit or another job?

The third thing is, you gain so much from your community.  Not only can you help an organization, but you learn so much about yourself by volunteering with a nonprofit in the local community. That’s what we find is the most important thing—you can really make a difference, but you also learn so much.

If you had to go back and do it all again—starting up the website and everything—is there anything that you would do differently?

There are a lot of things I would do differently. One is realizing to always ask for help. There are so many people in my community that have been so helpful in this process. When I was seventeen years old, I was a little reluctant to go into a local business and ask for in-kind resources to support our project, or to go to a corporation that was located in our community and ask for a small donation so that we could give out micro-grants to kids in our community to make a difference.  I think one thing that is important for young people to realize is they should utilize their creativity to go out and ask people for assistance.  You’re young, you’re passionate—all they can say is no, so keep asking. Don’t turn away from what you want to do, what you’re excited about. There are so many people that will lend a hand, but you just have to ask for assistance first.

What advice would you give someone else who’s starting up their own organization?
Not only should you ask a local business for in-kind resources, but step up and ask them for a small amount of money. Use numbers to show the impact that their donation is going to make and be very clear and thorough about how they as a local business can help you. The more concise and simplified you are in your ask, the easier it is for them to get back to you and help you through the process of starting your nonprofit.

Want more info? Check out VolunteenNation for volunteer opportunities near you.  The website also connects young people with service and entrepreneurship scholarships.

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