I admit it: my motives for signing up to volunteer at the Grady High School Writing Center were mostly selfish. I’m nosy, see? And super protective of my girls. And a longtime believer that the best way to advocate for your kid in school is to be ever present in the hallways—learning who the players are, making nice with the administration and understanding how to work the system. Helping out—becoming a part of the fabric of the school community—virtually guarantees your child will be taken care of. So I raised my hand and offered to help out where I was most needed and could, as a New York Times bestselling author and longtime journalist, offer my best skills.

The mission was simple: show up to our high school media center twice a week and offer to help students with everything from coursework to college and scholarship essays. As a collective of volunteers, we also sponsored several writing contest throughout the year, hosted author visits, conducted class writing workshops and helped organize an annual weekend playwriting workshop that saw students write their own play and then watch local theater directors and actors act it out onstage.

It was all easy enough—I considered my time well spent, especially as the teachers got to know me and my work and eventually, I became not only Mrs. Millner, the writing center coach, but also Mrs. Millner, Lila and Mari’s mom.

Let’s just say this had its benefits, particularly as I helped my daughters, brilliant and engaged, build class and extracurricular schedules worthy of their talents, wants and future college plans. My volunteering was paying off.

What I didn’t bank on, though, was that my work at the Grady Writing Center would fill me in a completely different way as I connected with the students—bonding not just over the words, but also a shared commitment to excellence. What would start out as my offering to help students organize an essay, conceive a thesis statement or zone in on that one life experience that would make their personal college app essay sing, often turned into long conversations about everything from college hopes and what classes to take to make a school take notice, to how to handle a bad grade and, in a few cases how to escape a bad relationship, how to talk to parents about abuse and how to break up with a bad boyfriend. Soon enough, I became more than just Ms. Millner, the writer. I became Ms. Millner, the trusted adult who would be more concerned with helping than judging.

And just as I have filled teenagers by helping them with their writing, they have filled me. #RewardVolunteers #NationalVolunteerMonth Click To Tweet

That’s the beauty of working with teens: they are such interesting, thoughtful human beings, willing to open up if we let them—willing, too, to listen and take the advice and use it for good, if only we give them the chance. With five years of volunteering under my belt, I’ve helped countless kids get into good colleges, graduate from high school, turn their high school grades around, figure out how to navigate the educational system, break up with bad boyfriends, embrace their religion without apology, fall in love with great books and writing, be inspired to become exactly what they want to be, without worry of what anyone else thinks. Know that they are bigger than their neighborhood, their city, their state, their corner of the world.

And just as I have filled them, they have filled me.  

Isn’t that the beauty of volunteering? It’s so much more than just logging in a couple hours to say you’ve done something; it’s about impacting real lives. It’s about fostering change in those lives.

I revel in this as National Volunteer Month approaches. The entire month of April is dedicated to both honoring those who volunteer in their communities and also encouraging others to pitch in—upping all the good we can collectively put into the world. I’m proud to partner with Reward Volunteers, a site that allows volunteers to log their hours, keep an accurate record of their work and even win prizes for donating time to helping others. I love the site, too, because it also provides information about volunteering opportunities in your area, making it that much easier to pitch in where needed—and change lives.

I recently started using the site to log my hours at the Grady Writing Center, and it has come in handy to help me keep track of the work I put in both at the school and outside of it, too, when I’m editing papers, doling out advice or just checking in with students who need a little extra push to get their classwork and college and scholarship apps in on time. I’ve also signed up my daughter, a sophomore who has to log 75 hours in order to graduate from her high school (anyone over the age of 13 can use the tool). Having Reward Volunteers as an accuracy tool will come in handy when she needs to show proof of her work, but also helps her identify volunteer opportunities that truly interest her.

I didn’t see myself working at the Grady Writing Center as more than an ambitious volunteer, looking to help a few hours a week. But last year, I took a leap forward and accepted the position as the director of the program—thrilled that I could bring my own flavor to the programming (we recently added the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition, replete with author and illustrator workshops for our young book writing hopefuls, and created a personal narrative workshop we’re teaching in some emergent writer classes) and build a team of volunteers every bit as dedicated as I am to these kids. And for every teen who is grateful for our advice and help, I too, am grateful that they let me into their world and let me make a difference in their lives.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

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