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'We' generation's embracing service
30 March 2005
by Steven Culbertson

Despite global unrest, young people remain dedicated to making the world a better place. Nearly 80 percent of the 9,891 youth who responded to a recent survey conducted by the PBS kids show "ZOOM'' said that they volunteer in their communities.

Highlighting the importance of starting to volunteer at an early age, a report by Independent Sector and Youth Service America revealed that two-thirds of all adult volunteers began volunteering their time when they were young. The study also showed that volunteering among high school students recently reached the highest levels in the past 50 years.

It should be no surprise that this generation of youth is volunteering more than any other, but they are also the most tolerant generation in history. These great young people embrace their peers regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or cultural difference, all in the name of serving their communities together. They are our nation's greatest generation they are the "we' generation, who scoff at the notion of just being interested in "me.'

Service and service-learning are becoming the common expectation and the common experience of all young people in America. Why then do we only hear about the small portion of young people who get into trouble? Why does the news cover youth violence and ignore youth service? We dedicate several minutes each night to covering sports; why not also dedicate just a few minutes, each broadcast, to covering local citizen service?

An entry point for many young people into service will be the 17th Annual National Youth Service Day, 15-17 April, a program of Youth Service America. Young people across America will address important community needs through service- learning projects focusing on literacy, hunger, public safety, youth voice, health care, and the environment.

Sponsored by State Farm Companies Foundation, National Youth Service Day is the largest service event in the world, engaging millions of young people in service, recruiting the next generation of volunteers, and highlighting their year-round contributions and community leadership. Youth in more than 150 countries will band together with their American peers as part of Global Youth Service Day, which takes place concurrently, thanks to the GM Foundation.

This is a perfect occasion to recognize that young people are not the hope of the future they are assets, resources and leaders today. Rather than expecting young adults to simply flip a switch and become engaged citizens when they turn 18, we should encourage community participation at a young age. Children as young as five years old can benefit from a service experience with their parents, siblings and friends.

By magnifying the negative acts of a few young people, the media falsely portrays all youth in the same negative light. National Youth Service Day is an opportunity to inform and educate the public that today's young people make up the greatest generation in history. Not only are they serving in their communities at record rates, they are also graduating from high school and enrolling in college at unprecedented levels.

And despite public perception, college-age drinking is at the lowest levels since 1965, and teenage pregnancy is at the lowest level in 60 years. Parents deserve much of the credit for these positive trends.

Let's not forget to thank teachers, who have been stepping up to the plate to underscore the importance of citizen service. With the growth of service- learning programs, teachers have found that linking academic curriculum to hands-on community service increases the retention of information. I know the academic lessons I remember most were the things I "learned by doing' in school and in my community.

If you are an adult, how can you help a young person get involved in service? If you are a young person, what will you do for National Youth Service Day and over the next years of your life? Look around your neighborhood. Where is the need the greatest? What person or problem could benefit from your amazing energy, commitment, experience and skills?

Find volunteer opportunities in your community or to recruit others to get involved in your National Youth Service Day project.

National Youth Service Day is not a one-hit wonder. It's a celebration of the contributions young people make all year long. It is also an intense service blitz when hundreds of pounds of collected food become meals for the hungry; paint that is donated all year meets the walls of schools and community centers; and the nails and lumber that AmeriCorps volunteers organized during the week become homes for families in need.

Let's not underestimate the power of a day in the lifetime of service and never underestimate the leadership of our youth.

Steven A. Culbertson is president and CEO of Youth Service America.

Learn more about National Youth Service Day