There are many things to be said for volunteerism; most have been articulated over and over since 1989, when President Bush, citing federal budget woes, coined the term "a thousand points of light" to describe the voluntary contributions Americans must make to society. Indeed Americans seem a willing lot: They give nearly 20 billion hours a year, performing free service that would cost $150 billion in public employee salaries.
While this is laudable, the emphasis on budget-cutting obscures the benefits for volunteers -- enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence, expanded social horizons and a chance to learn new job skills. Interestingly, these are precisely the kinds of experiences teen-agers need during the long summer ahead when school no longer offers personal and academic challenges. Yet the nation's volunteer effort has mainly focused on adults.
Now comes the United Way of Central Maryland with an innovative plan to recruit young people 12 to 21 in the city and the surrounding counties to do a myriad of volunteer jobs, from visiting the elderly in nursing homes to helping with day care and urban gardens to painting houses -- giving as much time, or as little, as they wish. The United Way has compiled a list of volunteer opportunities for young people that it will make available to all who are interested. We hope there are a substantial number of takers because the program offers countless benefits -- for the students, for the agencies that depend on volunteer workers, and of course for the recipients of their help. Volunteerism will never substitute for the failure of government responsibility. But the United Way's new program is still a winning proposition for Baltimore this summer.