Erin Mahoney stood by a soccer field and peered through her camera. It was warm for a Thursday evening in October, 71 degrees, and the sky was mostly blue.
Mahoney came to the Truesdell Education Campus in the District for games between Truesdell and Powell elementary schools, aiming to capture the important moments: a Truesdell player throwing her hands in the air after she scored a goal, or a group of boys posing on the sideline, arms around one another.
“It’s obvious, I think, pretty quickly, how much fun they’re having,” Mahoney said about the crowds on and off the field.
Unlike some of the other adults gathered there, Mahoney, 23, wasn’t a parent, a teacher or even a neighborhood resident. She took Metro to the game site to help out with the nonprofit group DC Scores, which uses soccer, poetry and service learning in programs for low-income third- through eighth-graders.
Millennials such as Mahoney are often stereotyped as selfish, and volunteer rates among the generation born between 1982 and 1998 aren’t as high as those of their elders (21.7 percent of millennials volunteered in 2014, according to the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, compared with 27.2 percent of baby boomers and 29.4 percent of Generation X). But some young adults in the Washington area are donating their time to charitable organizations, which say that millennials are versatile, passionate and interested in social change.
Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, also pointed out that millennials in the Washington area volunteer at a rate of 27.2 percent, higher than the national average.
“Hurray for D.C. millennials,” Spencer said. “They’re doing something right.”
She also said the national statistics don’t necessarily take into account episodic volunteerism. So young people who aren’t officially signed up as volunteers with an organization might not be counted, even if they donated their time at a single event.
Spencer said the most common places for millennials to volunteer are with educational or youth service organizations, and their most common volunteer activities are fundraising and mentoring youth.
Mahoney, who lives in Silver Spring, is one of a handful of people her age who volunteer as photographers for DC Scores, organization spokesman Jake Lloyd said. Their pictures are used in social media posts and on printed materials, among other uses.
The nonprofit group offers different kinds of volunteer opportunities so it can accommodate people of varying ages and skills, Lloyd said, and makes a conscious effort to find young helpers. He said that 75 percent or more of DC Scores volunteers are millennials and that the organization recruits at volunteer fairs and on college campuses.
DC Scores also aims to attract young financial donors. Paige Nicol and her husband, David, both millennials, volunteer on the nonprofit’s advisory council, which is made up of young professionals, and a lot of their work is in fundraising. The couple hosted a house party for DC Scores, for example, and Paige Nicol organized a charitable spinning class in conjunction with D.C. United.
Some people get involved with DC Scores because they’re friends with teachers or soccer coaches in the program, Paige Nicol said, but others get hooked when they attend events and find out what the group does for children in the District.
“It’s just a matter of getting them in the door,” the 26-year-old Adams Morgan resident said.
DC Scores’s focus on soccer also is a big draw, Lloyd said, because volunteers often are interested in the sport.
Take Steve Christensen, a University of Maryland doctoral student who lives in Columbia Heights. He valued the guidance he received from soccer coaches as a child and wanted to pay it forward. He started volunteering by taking photos and shooting video, and now he also coaches in games once a week.
Christensen, 27, said it’s particularly rewarding to see children who are initially shy learn to express themselves, whether on the soccer field or through presenting their work at a poetry slam.
“It’s helping them get past that stage fright and shyness they might come in with,” he said.
Like DC Scores, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture is rich in millennial labor: 60 to 75 percent of its volunteers are from the generation, Arcadia Executive Director Pamela Hess said. But the Alexandria-based organization doesn’t try to target millennials in its recruiting.
Arcadia’s programs include nutrition education, growing vegetables on a farm and selling them in a retrofitted school bus that serves as a mobile farmers market for low-income or low-food-access communities.
And program organizers are glad to get volunteers of any age, if they appreciate those pursuits, Hess said.
“We’re not trying to be appealing to anybody other than people who get it,” she said.
Marquise Hopson, 26, a medical student at George Washington University, said she was drawn to the group’s mission after hearing Hess speak at a college event. Now she’s a regular volunteer.
Hopson, who is originally from Pittsburgh, described herself as a city girl, but she said she enjoys the rural work at Arcadia. It’s good exercise, she said, it’s relaxing, and it provides time to socialize.
Those good points can make it easy for Hopson and her peers to forget they signed up to do manual labor for free. At least most of the time. Hopson recalled a voice of reason breaking through on one summer day when a group was toiling in 95-degree heat.
“Someone said something like, ‘We all must be crazy,’ ” she said.
Such silly moments contribute to a friendly atmosphere that keeps volunteers returning to Arcadia. Arlington resident Alyssa Devlin said she likes to give back to her community, but she also simply enjoys being at the farm.
“Volunteering wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t fruitful on both ends,” Devlin, 28, said.
Although Hess said Arcadia doesn’t target millennials, she noted that the organization’s Sunday evening “Farm Tonics” seem to attract them.
The events, held weekly during the growing season, begin a few hours before sunset. Volunteers and staff members work on the farm and then sit down for drinks and a potluck meal.
That helped draw in 24-year-old Cuchulain Kelly and his friends. The lure of gin and tonics to come after working “definitely didn’t hurt to get us out there,” he said.
Hess also pointed out that her staff’s use of Instagram is popular with millennials. Images there show nature’s bounty: the farm, flowers and “gorgeous” vegetables, she said.
But social media isn’t necessarily a recruitment tool for Arcadia, Hess said.
What’s more likely, she said, is that millennials’ interest in systemic, long-term change matches well with Arcadia’s goal of helping everyone — regardless of income or status — have access to nutritious food grown with sustainable methods.
Bethesda-based Rock Creek Conservancy is trying to use social media to get the attention of more millennials, although spokeswoman Anne Baker said it lands volunteers more frequently by word-of-mouth and through VolunteerMatch, a website that connects people to charitable organizations. About 40 percent of Rock Creek Conservancy’s volunteers are millennials.
One successful tactic the group employs is to quickly post photos of volunteers after events. The volunteers can then find images of themselves, tag them and share them with friends, who could be potential workers in the future.
“We always get a lot of engagement with those,” Baker said.
Rock Creek Conservancy’s mission of preserving and advocating for the creek and its parklands appealed to John Marsiglio, 22. He has already volunteered for the organization despite having lived in the region only a little more than a month.
Marsiglio toiled at the forest preserves in Cook County, Ill., when he was a student at Northwestern University, so he sought a similar nature-based opportunity after he moved to Silver Spring.
“Here in America, our greatest treasures belong to everyone,” said Marsiglio, who has helped Rock Creek Conservancy remove harmful invasive plant species from parks.
But if that organization, as well as DC Scores and Arcadia, have significant numbers of millennials on volunteer rosters, what of the stereotype of the generation as self-absorbed?
It might be true for some of those between ages 16 and 32, but there is that statistic about millennials in the Washington area volunteering at a rate higher than the national average for the generation.
The notion of selfishness also doesn’t square with the fact that so many millennials are social activists, Mahoney and Kelly said.
Kelly said a lot of millennials seem adamant about promoting some kind of change. Maybe they protested on college campuses or worked for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
Social media also could play a role here, he said: When millennials are bombarded by postings about problems in the nation and world, they want to take action quickly.
That doesn’t scream selfishness, said Kelly, who lives in Columbia Heights.
“To me, that shouts awareness and engagement in the national dialogue,” he said.