Today's Youths Shaping Up As Generation Of Volunteers

April 19, 2005 | By Maureen Magee

Serra High School freshman Tom Smith takes time away from homework, sports and friends to document the life of a World War II veteran.

Jennifer Cordileone, 17, does the shopping once a week for a Point Loma hospice patient. At University City High School, students turned an almost cursory assignment into a book drive for homeless children.

The American youth is no stranger to community service. Scouts, candy stripers and the like have been coming to the aid of strangers for centuries.

But today’s teens are shaping up to be a generation of super volunteers.

Thanks largely to a lifetime of scheduled play dates and organized activities, experts say this generation knows how to mobilize, evaluate and take on problems—perhaps like none before.

Whether the motive is to impress colleges, meet graduation requirements or satisfy a personal yearning, more and more teenagers locally and nationwide are taking time away from the beach, the mall and the computer to perform community service.

Some 10,000 middle and high schoolers from San Diego County volunteered in the community last year, a 25 percent increase from five years ago, according to Volunteer San Diego, an organization that works with 720 area nonprofit groups. Nationwide, the number of 16-to 19-year-old volunteers rose from 4.3 million in 2002 to nearly 4.8 million in 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Why has this generation turned its energy toward improving society?

For starters, many schools encourage or even require students to volunteer. And competition to get into top universities is at an all-time high, putting pressure on students to amass impressive résumés.

But demographers and sociologists say there is something deeper driving this trend.

In the book “Millennials Rising The Next Great Generation,” authors Neil Howe and William Strauss surmise that this is an optimistic bunch determined to solve problems using many of the skills they honed early in their lives.

“They’re cooperative team players. From school uniforms to team learning to community service, they are gravitating toward group activity,” they write in the book, which was published in 2000. “Unlike Gen Xers, they believe in their own collective power.”

That said, many educators believe schools have a responsibility to seize momentum and encourage community service, beginning in the classroom.

“If students are engaged and invested in solving real problems in their community, they find more purpose in their learning, in the community and in themselves,” said Kenny Holdsman, managing director of the National Service-Learning Partnership, a nonprofit group based in New York City that promotes the practice. “Young people want things to be real and relevant.”

Community-service requirements vary greatly among and even within school districts.

Only two San Diego Unified School District campuses—Mira Mesa and Serra high schools—make community service a graduation requirement. All but one campus in the Sweetwater Union High School District require 30 hours of community service before graduation. The exception is San Ysidro High School, which has required 300 hours since it opened in 2002.

Principal Hector Espinoza said the policy is a bold effort to encourage social responsibility.

Like most schools, San Ysidro High prohibits students from receiving pay for community service work, and students cannot perform service during school hours.

“We wanted to raise the bar for ourselves and the kids have responded very well to it,” Espinoza said. “These kids are savvy and they want to help. Maybe it’s a backlash against the yuppies.”

Some young volunteers readily admit their activism is nothing more than fodder for college applications. But others say they take on charitable projects for personal reasons.

“I like to get out in the world and experience things and help people,” said Smith, the Serra High School freshman who is working to preserve the war stories of a 90-year-old World War II veteran.

Smith, 15, attributes his activism to his mother, who had him cleaning up beaches as a young child. Since then, he has volunteered at a Tijuana orphanage, among other places.

This academic year alone, Smith has accrued 200 hours of community service. Serra recommends that all students do some community service: 10 hours is recommended for ninth-graders, 15 hours for 10th-graders, and 20 for juniors. Seniors are required to perform 15 hours of service.

At University City High School, seniors are required to assemble a portfolio of work in addition to a project that calls for a contribution to the community. The community service component is loosely defined, but a group of students—all academic standouts—ran with it.

Valerie Brown, James Chao, Jeremy Lorang, Zach Montag, Cary Robbins and Matt Shields started a book drive designed to collect 160 books, one for each child living at the St. Vincent de Paul downtown homeless shelter.

They received more than 1,500 books and plan to build a library for the shelter.

“We wanted the project to actually have some meaning,” said Shields, 17. “It has actually changed our lives, too. We were amazed at what we could accomplish.”

Cordileone, a junior and budding photographer at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, promised herself she would work with a hospice two years ago when her mother died of breast cancer. She has been a volunteer at Hospice Care of San Diego since August.

“When somebody is sick, it’s just hard to get the normal things done,” she said. “With the amount it helps someone, it’s not that big of an inconvenience.”

Today’s youth are so enthusiastic about getting involved in the community, that it’s hard to find work for every interested body, said Jennifer Hamilton, the director of youth and education programs for Volunteer San Diego.

“A lot of kids are not satisfied with just volunteering, because everyone is doing that,” Hamilton said. “They want a leadership role.”

In honor of National Youth Service Day last weekend, a group of young volunteers cleared brush from the lots of 15 families who lost their homes in Harbison Canyon during the deadly Cedar fire of 2003.

Disasters, such as the fires, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, have all served to mobilize young volunteers, Hamilton said.

“They really see that they have a say and they are trained to have a way to say it,” she said. “And with e-mail and text messaging, they know how to get the word out and rally people. This generation, it is a powerful force.