Teenage Volunteers Give Team Effort

March 14, 2002 | By Corissa Jansen

Lewis Schroeder was practically born a team player.

Six years each of soccer, baseball, basketball, wrestling. Three years of football. A few years in Boy Scouts, too. All told, the 18-year-old New Berlin Eisenhower High School senior has nearly doubled his age in years spent in organized sports and group activities. And just as coaches taught him long ago to pass the football to his teammates, Schroeder takes the same approach when he wants to lend a helping hand.

Only, when he volunteers, the playing field is a backyard. And he passes a rake to another member of the Senior Advocate Youth Exchange Service Inc. The group of New Berlin young people helps senior citizens with household chores.

“It makes it a lot easier if you’re working in a team because you’re not always comfortable if you’re by yourself,” said one of Schroeder’s SAYES teammates, Rhiannon Eiche, 17. “If you’re with other people, you just have fun with it.”

A generation that spent much of its childhood at sports practices or performing in dance troupes, today’s youth often carry their ingrained team-oriented attitudes with them when they volunteer.

While their predecessors of Generation X were known more for the solo volunteer doing individual acts of kindness, this generation of so-called “Millennials” is filling what scholars call a societal void for team play and wider civic achievement.

“While the rest of America has been bowling alone, today’s generation has been playing on soccer teams, and confidently working together on collaborative projects,” said historian and author William Strauss, referring to “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” by Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam. The book focuses on a change in American culture that has been pulling adults away from the social institutions that used to connect them, such as Kiwanis and Jaycees clubs and other service groups.

According to Putnam, more Americans are bowling than ever before, but they’re going it alone instead of joining leagues.

Not so with an emerging young generation that’s surpassing baby boomers both in numbers and its sense of community spirit, says Strauss, who with Neil Howe co-wrote “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

“It’s a very different kind of youth activism than what we saw in the boomer days. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was ‘end the draft, stop the war,’” Strauss said. “For today’s kids, the focus is much more local and practical. And they’re working in teams and going for results, rather than chasing a symbolic moral vision.”

Practical Results

For the team members with New Berlin’s SAYES, results are very local and practical. A yard is cleared of leaves. Windows are washed. Garages are swept.

But the rewards, the teens say, are much more lofty. The rush they feel when they’ve made a difference to someone. Knowing that they’ve helped senior citizens or adults with disabilities continue to be able to live on their own. The simple joy of jumping together into a pile of leaves.

“That’s the whole point—not just to do it, but to have fun while you’re doing it,” said 17-year-old Debbie Stormoen. “It makes you want to keep doing it.”

Experts say it’s no surprise that today’s teenagers are increasingly focused on group volunteering. These students have frequently been taken out of the classroom as more schools emphasize community service or “service learning” as part of the curriculum, says Susan Crites Pierce, author of “The Giving Family: Raising Our Children to Help Others.”

Partly because of their classroom work, kids are now volunteering at ages as young as 6, with the average age being 13 1/2, according to a national survey of American parents conducted for Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Department Stores as they launch their second-annual Kohl’s Kids Who Care awards program.

Pierce says the trend is likely to continue, as more non-profit organizations and family foundations are beginning to incorporate teens on their boards. For example, all Milwaukee-area YMCA branches have recently established Teen Action Councils.

And the Washington-based Points of Light Foundation is also working with organizations to figure out ways to better involve a willing generation of young people in volunteering.

“It’s just an obvious fit,” said Pierce, who is working with Kohl’s as it searches for “the most caring youth in America” in a program that awards $126,000 in scholarships to regional and national winners.

“It’s very empowering for children to find they are capable of helping others and making a difference in people’s lives,” Pierce said.

Impact on People

The SAYES team members said they’ve seen touching examples of the way their work has affected people. All of them remember the old man who cried after the team cleared his small lawn on a sunny day in October.

“Now that was moving,” said 17-year-old Jason Larcheid. “It makes you feel like you’ve done a lot more than just rake the leaves.”

“When you see the emotion from the people you help, it makes up for how bad you sweated and how hard you tried and how you cut your fingers,” Schroeder added.

With rakes and brooms in hand, about 20 SAYES teen volunteers filed into a rented bus that morning at 7:15. Before the sun set, they had cleaned up the yards of eight elderly people in New Berlin.

In their khaki pants, hooded Wisconsin sweat shirts and polo shirts, they appear to be a fairly homogenous bunch, but adolescent social structure separates them at school: the jocks, the skaters, the cheerleaders, the band kids.

As they’ve grown older, though, the teens say they’ve largely set aside those conventions.

When it’s the right thing to do, it’s just fun to see everybody work together,” Eiche said.

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