In this guest post, Fort Edmonton Park Volunteer Coordinator Laura Nichol shares why youth
volunteering is essential to Fort Edmonton Park and important for the future of local heritage.
Upon meeting Costumed Interpreter Maggie Bodnar, dressed to perfection in her 1920s garb and confidently engaging a crowd of delighted visitors, you might be shocked to learn that this intelligent and independent young woman is only 15 years old!
Maggie is one of over 60 volunteers who participate annually in Fort Edmonton Park’s Youth Leadership Program. Through July and August, these dynamic young antiquarians enhance the site and delight visitors, all the while learning professional skills and building their resumes and capacity for employment. This will be Maggie’s third summer as a costumed Junior Interpreter, where she will spend one day per week working with her mentor, Grace, to animate the 1920s Midway. She completes a structured module with her mentor at the beginning of the day, and then has an opportunity to shadow and practice her new skills with an experienced professional by her side. The end of the day is dedicated to reflection and journaling.
Mentor Grace describes Maggie as “a delightful and refreshing presence on our midway” and takes pride in the growth she has seen, as well as her role in creating a future museum professional. As Maggie’s skills develop, Grace feels she has contributed both to her volunteer’s personal growth and to her ability to confidently and creatively engage the public. Since Grace is also given a chance to develop her leadership skills and promote her career, the program builds two future heritage professionals at once.
Structured learning and support are key values for participants and mentors alike. The season begins with training sessions for mentors with topics covering coaching, problem solving, and the unique challenges of working with youth (like budding hormones and channeling extreme energy). Youth similarly participate in a full day session designed to set expectations around commitment, customer service, the basics of interpretation, programming, and stewardship. Parents are required to participate in part of the day, in an effort to keep them an active participant in their child’s learning, and to ensure key messages aren’t missed in the teen’s excitement. The program has a large variety of engagement opportunities – including Junior Costumed Interpreter, Junior Daycamp Leader, Event Support, Junior Costumer, or Youth Researcher – to encourage youth from many walks of life to get involved.
Another great advantage of the Youth Program is the diversity of programming options it creates. Youth volunteers have a great opportunity to share unique stories of Edmonton’s youth heritage, and to more accurately represent Edmonton’s generational diversity. They also have a better ability to connect with visitors their own age. Maggie believes that her contribution is important because “when we share stories and ways of life from people who lived hundreds of years ago, that affects how our world is now. We want to know that when someone leaves Fort Edmonton, they learned something interesting they never knew about our history.”
What ultimately drives the program is the passion of the youth volunteers. While all of her learning hasn’t been easy, Maggie has challenged herself to grow. She encourages other youth to put themselves out there and step outside their comfort zone to get the full benefit of their volunteer experience, “Try new things, talk to new people and always smile. I learned that if you are nervous or don’t know how to do something, ask for help.” And, for Maggie, the program is incredibly fun! Many of our youth have made lifelong friends and have gone on to positions of leadership at our museum and others in Edmonton.
Empowering youth is a necessary and rewarding way that we fulfill our mission, and one that is easily accomplished with the right structure, and with amazing and passionate youth! Want to get involved or engage youth at your museum? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Nichol is Volunteer Coordinator at Fort Edmonton Park. A graduate of the University of Alberta Drama program, she is passionate about engagement and performance and its role in history. She has worked with various Edmonton-based heritage organizations, including the Friends of Rutherford House Society and Edmonton’s heritage cemeteries, and sat on the Edmonton Historical Board. Laura is proud to have gotten her start as a Youth Volunteer Interpreter.