Schools can help youth connect with something they know matters

DISCOVERING INNER REWARDS OF WORKING FOR COMMUNITY

July 01, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

By now we're beginning to recover from graduation season, some of us emotionally, some financially, some both. Now, it's a straight run for Christmas season, with its emotional and financial drains.

One of the ceremonies I sat proudly through this year was for my nephew, who graduated from a small, inner-city private school. The list of college acceptances was diverse and impressive. The accomplishments of the graduating class were equally diverse and impressive, reflecting the school's emphasis on individuality. all the student speeches, however, there was one common theme, one aspect of their curriculum that they universally talked about -- public service.

As in many private junior and senior high schools throughout the country, upper grade students at The Berkeley-Carroll School in New York City are required to give a minimum number of hours each week to aid the community. Students invariably exceed the minimum requirements, as they taste the rewards that come from helping others. Whether the cause was abortion rights, Persian Gulf anti-war sentiments or the environment, each Berkeley-Carroll graduate was deeply and sincerely moved by their community service experience.

So, why are we missing the boat with our public high schools? The number of public schools that require, or even foster, community service is disgracefully low. In an age when we lament the decline of the community service ethic, we are doing virtually nothing to help nurture an attitude of caring among our youth which would last them a lifetime.

As I drove through one of Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods last week, watching groups of youth just "hanging out," shadow boxing with each other, playing basketball with sweat-drenched bodies, I couldn't help but think how wonderful it would be if non-profits could mobilize even a fraction of that youthful energy.

In a study by the Independent Sector, a nationwide coalition of non-profit organizations, nearly half of the teen-agers polled said they volunteered because they wanted to do something useful. Like the rest of us, teens tell us they want to feel good about who they are and what they do. They want an outlet for their intense passions and physical energy. They want to be connected to something that matters, as they begin to understand the powers -- and responsibilities -- of adulthood.

Yet, the service opportunities we offer youth are paltry, indeed. How many school systems, public or private, have developed comprehensive community service programs specifically geared to youth? How many non-profit organizations have developed leadership programs that gradually teach youth the value of caring for those less fortunate than themselves? The same Independent Sector survey revealed that teens volunteered four times more when they were asked than when they had to take the initiative to volunteer.

In past years, it was often the homemaker-mother of an intact nuclear family who inculcated service values in their children, as they volunteered in churches, Scouts, or social service agencies. While undoubtedly this still goes on in many families, social trends will require that other social institutions help teach these values to our youth if we are to develop a future society of caring, skilled volunteers. The places to start are with our schools and non-profit agencies. The time to start is now.

Just what can non-profit agencies and schools do to promote a community service ethic in our youth? First, they should reach out to one another and form coalitions that go beyond political, petty barriers. Resource development for non-profit agencies involves more than just raising money. It includes building awareness and support of community service efforts that build the next generation of supporters and leaders.

Next, non-profit agencies must actively listen to youth and their concerns. How many agencies, of all types and concerns, have responsible youth on their boards and advisory committees? How many agencies regularly poll youth to determine their interests, concerns and aspirations in order to more effectively market volunteer programs to that segment?

Like any successful volunteer program, high expectations must be part of any program for youth. No one is proud to achieve mediocrity. The expectations for youth volunteers should be upfront, training must be provided for achieving those expectations, and reward systems built in to recognize them.

In youth programs, especially ones operating in and for the inner city, norms are critical. Youth are heavily influenced by peers and the prevailing culture. Volunteer and leadership development programs must consciously address and develop

action approaches to creating an institutional culture where hard work, caring and positive accomplishments are the norm. It is amazing to see how youth gravitate to such a self-esteem-boosting environment.

There is some evidence to suggest that the self-indulgent "Me" generation of the eighties is seeking an ethic of more enduring value. As a society, we should be working hard to help our youth rediscover the inner rewards of a community service ethic.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works wit charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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