In the spirit of King, volunteerism on the rise

January 15, 2001|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA -- There may be much groaning about the values of today's youth, but this generation is more active in volunteering and giving than perhaps any before it.

According to figures from the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, 13 million teen-agers -- 59 percent of America's teen population -- volunteer more than 3.5 hours a week.

A 1998 national survey reported that about one-third of students in grades seven through 12 identified volunteering and helping others as very important goals. A national survey of college students conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University found that 60 percent said they preferred community volunteerism to political engagement as a better way to solve important issues.

The commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday has become an opportunity for volunteerism. Through the efforts of the Corporation for National Service and the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a national effort has been launched in the past few years to turn the King holiday into a national day of service.

Philadelphia has the largest King Day of Service program, with more than 20,000 youths participating in community service projects ranging from training reading tutors, helping build homes with Habitat for Humanity and cleaning schools, recreation centers and parks.

In the Kansas City area, 67 percent of high schools have Youth Service Clubs.

In April, 3 million youths nationwide participated in National Youth Service Day by engaging in more than 10,000 community improvement projects in all 50 states, including more than 500 youths in Baltimore.

The number of AmeriCorps national service volunteers has grown from 20,000 in 1996 to 40,000 today, applications to the Peace Corps are up 10 percent and the number of City Year organization affiliates has grown from one city in 1998 to 10 today.

Over the past three years, more than 100,000 young people have volunteered in the Washington area to reduce homelessness through the "Housin' 2000" program sponsored by the Fannie Mae Foundation. Young volunteers made sandwiches for homeless people, held a Halloween costume drive for homeless children and raised $5 million for homeless service providers in a walkathon.

Kiwanis sponsors Key Club, a national service organization for high-schoolers built around the concept of caring. It is the largest service organization of its kind with more than 16,000 members in about 4,200 clubs. The Capital District Key Club has more than 10,000 members in more than 200 clubs. Students in the Gaithersburg High School Key Club participate in clothing drives, school cleanups, and soup kitchen visits.

Another example: Arundel High School Key Club, with help from other local Key Clubs, ran a campaign that collected 4.5 tons of nonperishable food items for the Capital Area Food Bank, The Sun reported last week.

Maryland law requires students to complete 75 hours of student-service learning between grades six and 12. But most Maryland schools also have clubs and activities that foster volunteerism. For example, Baltimore City College High School has Students For Social Responsibility, in which students band together each year to hold food, clothing or money drives for people and organizations in need.

Engaging in volunteerism is the way this generation has tried to make a difference. When they volunteer, they get to see an immediate, positive impact on other people's lives -- parks, schools and recreational centers get cleaned up, a young child improves his reading skills, a nursing-home resident gets a new friend, and money gets raised for various charities.

There's a lot more to this younger generation than tattoos, nose rings and Limp Bizkit. They deserve credit for it.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer living in Philadelphia.

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