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Students learn lifelong lessons from volunteering
25 November 2004
by Tyrone Burrell

At least one local school has started a service organization for middle-school-age students. Why is it important for kids to get involved in community service?

I think what kids do at a young age kind of sets a tone, the foundation, for their positive involvement in the life of a community for years to come. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I used to cut the grass for the church. You didn't make a lot of money, but I took pride in what I did. Now, I run this organization (Save Our Neighborhoods and Streets). Right now, adults are measuring the degree to which kids show enthusiasm, creativity, effort, resourcefulness. When they are volunteering, they get to expand their skills, especially if they have some mentoring going on along with the community service.

Is it ever too early for kids to get involved in community service?

I don't think so. We've got kids who played in our fifth-grade basketball league, and we find that the kids want to help out with the concession stand or work a video camera. I've got kids who are just eager to help out. There needs to be opportunities for their humanity to be recognized, that they can make a contribution.

What's the benefit of getting kids, say in the second or third grade, involved rather than waiting until they are in high school?

I think if you can involve them and provide the mentoring that goes along with that, in some way reward them, it will just be more in their mindset. I can tell the kids who come from a home where giving has been part of the culture of that home. If we in the community can offer a place where young people can experience the rewards of giving back, it will become a lifelong value.

What are the options available to local youth interested in getting involved?

For us, we've had it where our basketball players have to do three acts of kindness, and it might be shoveling someone's snow. There's a broad array of opportunities. We have some of our teenagers in 11th and 12th grade help coach fifth- and sixth-graders; that's a measure of giving back. Soup kitchens, I think the ARC ... Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity. There are a lot of chances.

What can parents do to get youth interested in serving their community?

For some kids, maybe the intrinsic reward isn't enough. I think if they can see the reward (it helps). Maybe the reward is a 'thank you.' Maybe it's a stipend of some sort. Maybe it's just including them in part of your family, part of your life. Definitely, the appreciation is something that every child should feel.

Is there any kind of community service you would recommend over anything else for youth?

Probably befriending, tutoring, being an example and mentoring another child.

Tyrone Burrell is executive director of the Save Our Neighborhoods and Streets organization in Port Huron, Michigan, USA. Among other things, the group encourages youth to get involved in their communities.