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Mandated volunteerism
16 July 2007
by Carly Bickley

Call me old-fashioned, but community service (or volunteerism) used to mean something. Charitable work, an important tradition in American culture, once grew out of a family's genuine concern for a cause or from long-standing relationships to houses of worship. And it was based on a shared belief in the value of good deeds. Sadly, it seems we baby boomers took this good and pure idea of service and turned it into its own unique kind of monster.

Welcome to the newest rat race, the race for community service hours. Ask students walking for a "cure" or tutoring underprivileged children why they are there and they'll tell you, "I need the hours." Schools, particularly private schools, have taken it on themselves to legislate the good deeds of our children and by inference, we parents as well. I no longer have the time to discuss my own family's religious and moral duties with my children – we're all too busy racing from project to project putting in required hours.

As a mother of three who has spent some 12-odd years in the private school system, the demands of community service have changed dramatically.

Students used to be encouraged, without mandate, to do a few hours of community service each year. It could range from work in the school (like helping at a school function) to the more serious community activities such as covering graffiti with a coat of paint or raising funds for communities in need. Now, not only are the serious hours demanded as part of the curriculum, but they differentiate between community and school service. And students, of course, are required to do both.

Kids are further led to believe that no college will take them without these hours of service. Good grades, athletic achievement, or musical prowess mean nothing if you didn't hand out bread at a soup kitchen. Today, even high school admissions offices look for a strong record of service by junior high and elementary schoolers, which really means their parents better get busy lining up projects.

The real audacity of the situation lies in the underlying assumption that students would do nothing without their schools' guiding hand. Why else must kids document their hours? Schools clearly feel obliged to teach our children to care, implying we don't teach them ourselves. America is the most charitable country on earth, so it's an odd assumption. But more important, the schools' mandated volunteerism has slowly turned a noble tradition of philanthropic service into another competition, another thing our kids check off their to-do lists as they plot their college applications.

Because their schools have reduced charitable giving to a numbers game, I'm not even sure today's students feel the genuine satisfaction that comes from caring deeply about a cause and becoming involved in it.

This trend in philanthropy also fails those who serve in ways that are impossible to document in hours. Should Bill Gates and his children stop cutting those billion-dollar checks and put more time into freeway trash removal? Ask the heads of charitable organizations and they'll tell you they are as grateful for the check cutters as they are for the foot soldiers.

There are kids out there in every type of school, private and public, who simply can't give up a Saturday to clean the trash on a beach because their moms work two jobs and they have to watch their young siblings. They do this without pay and without credit. They are doing a noble service to their families and to their communities. Yet Harvard will never know about it. They'll only read about the millionaire who pays thousands of dollars so his kid can serve food to an African village over spring break. That's a lot of good hours. That kid clearly cares the most. He wins. It is, after all, a competition, right?

All philanthropy is good, but, ideally, I'd like my family to follow a model that operates on the principle that charity begins at home. In this model, family members take care of one another first and then the people around them, financially and physically if needed. But there are no organizations involved, no plaques in their names, and no one to sign their kid's blue sheets when they spend evenings entertaining the children of sick parents. It's just the right thing to do. I would love my children to give and serve, not because they're getting credit for it, but because it's right.

Carly Bickley is a screenwriter and mother of three.