Kids on Crusades:
Hurricane Relief Efforts Just Part of Dramatic Rise in Youthful Volunteers

October 3, 2005 | By Joann Klimkiewicz

All summer long, Devon Aldave wanted to organize a carwash in his West Hartford neighborhood.

“Just for fun,” the 8-year-old says with a shrug when asked to explain. But, as do many childhood impulses, the notion faded with the summer. Then came Hurricane Katrina. “I saw the kids on TV that were hurting because of Katrina, and I was sad,” Devon says. “And I thought maybe we could do the carwash to raise money for them.” With his younger brothers and friends in tow, Devon soaped and sprayed his way on a recent Saturday afternoon to $241, which he donated to the American Red Cross.

It all left Lisa Aldave a proud mother—and very much in awe of the pint-size patrons.

“When I was growing up, all the fundraisers we had were strictly for school teams or the organizations we were attached to,” says Aldave, 37. “It wasn’t about philanthropy. I don’t think we grew up with that mindset.

“This was something they took and truly did on their own.”

Student-driven Katrina relief efforts have cropped up in schools and youth groups across the country. They’re selling Mardi Gras beads and T-shirts during recess, hosting street-corner bake sales and lemonade stands—all with an eagerness that has parents and teachers taking notice.

And yet, it’s not that surprising. This is the same group of kids who showed equal zeal taking on tsunami relief efforts last December, the same kids who stack bunches of cause-related rubber bracelets around their ankles and wrists. They’re setting record numbers for volunteerism and, scholars say, proving to be one of the most socially engaged generations in recent history.

And from elementary classrooms to university halls, it’s a generation—born 1982 and after—that they predict will go on to be a political and social powerhouse.

“This is an amazing generation of young people, and nobody knows it,” says Steve Culbertson, president of Youth Service America, a Washington-based international nonprofit outfit. “And I think these hurricane-relief efforts are really putting it on the table. Just as [Katrina] revealed some of the sadder sides of life, it’s also revealed this is the greatest generation of young kids that we’ve ever had in this country.”

Lazy. Angst-ridden. Distracted. Each generation laments the one behind them. But the string of adjectives just doesn’t apply to this group of American youth when taken as a whole, Culbertson says.

Their childhoods were shaped by the panic of a new millennium followed by the unprecedented tragedy of the 2001 terrorist attacks. A war in Afghanistan followed. Another in Iraq. And now news of natural disasters dominates the airwaves.

It’s a profound mixture that seeps into their consciousness, speaking at once to the frailty of humanity and its strength to overcome.

At the Smith School Of Science, Math & Technology in West Hartford, teacher Lauren Worley has seen this first-hand.

The hurricane was the subject on everyone’s lips when the school year began. Worley wanted to encourage the students to help and proposed they scour their homes for loose change to donate to the relief efforts. Three weeks and umpteen jars of pennies later, the students raised $1,606.69—presenting the Red Cross with a check for that amount last week.

“I knew that if you give them the opportunity to do something, they take it and go with it,” Worley says. “Somewhere along the lines, they learned that when something like this happens, you help people when they need it.”

That’s what had fifth-graders Tatiana Smith and Sarah Smith (they are not related, but are very good friends, they say) trading sunny recesses for a half-hour of coin-counting nearly every day of the penny drive.

They’ve joined about 25 students who volunteered over the weeks to count and roll coins. There was no nudging, Worley says, no coaxing with rewards. They get no respite from a math lesson, no extra credit.

When asked why, Tatiana neatly, methodically stacked pennies as she described the devastation she’s seen on television.

“They’ve been saying it’s really bad. Everyday when I turn on the TV, it’s Katrina and Rita,” she says. “We have a home, and we can ride our bikes and scooters. We have a comfortable bed to sleep in and clothes to wear. They don’t.”

Seeing the images of devastation, of families washed from their homes, it’s touched these kids deeper than some might guess.

It had Manuel Martinez unable to sleep the night before he and his schoolmates at McDonough Elementary School in Hartford hosted a bake sale for Katrina relief. And, he says, he was just so excited to be raising money to help, he nervously checked to make sure his mother bought the cake mix for the goodies he planned to contribute.

“They’ve got no place to go. We have so much, and they have so little now. Their homes are destroyed, and they have nothing,” says Manuel, 11, who, with his peers, raised $200.

But it’s not just about hurricane relief and fundraisers. These students are showing impressive maturity as they take to service projects and talk of opening themselves to worlds outside their own.

Two years ago, David Shortell’s mother told him they’d be taking a two-week trip to Nicaragua with a Sister Cities program. This would be no Disneyland vacation. They’d be touring one of the poorest countries in the world, experiencing how families there live, extend some help if they could. But David didn’t grumble. In fact, he was intrigued.

“When I came back, I was like, wow. I have a lot of things I take for granted,” says David, 13.

So when it comes time for his bar mitzvah this month, David says he’ll give a chunk of his gift money to a cause in Nicaragua. He’d like to help buy new musical supplies for a local band he met in San Ramon.

“It’s like, I’m not going to go to the mall and spend it all. I gained so much from that experience, and I had to give something back,” says David, who is also active with a youth volunteer group at his West Hartford temple.

In the last decade, volunteerism among youngsters has risen dramatically. In 1989, 66 percent of university freshman reported doing volunteer work in their last year of high school. That number jumped to 83 percent in 2003, according to a national study conducted annually by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

Skeptics may attribute that to resume-padding, college-bound students looking to stand out.

But 30 percent of young adults say they volunteer because they are asked, and 24 percent because it make them feel good, according to the Center for Democracy & Citizenship. Eight percent concede they do it to build their resumes.

For Giovannie Mendez, organizing a holiday dinner and gift drive for a trio of homeless shelters last year had nothing to do with resumes.

“I went through it,” says Mendez, 19, of Hartford, who was shuffled around foster homes, residential facilities and homeless shelters since he was 8. When he arrived for his first semester at Morris Brown College in Atlanta last year, he was moved when he learned of the extent of poverty in the city.

He and a core of five other students raised more than $1,000 to pull off a party that gave about 50 families a respite from the shelter, a hearty meal and holiday presents.

It’s an event he continues at the campus and one he is considering bringing to Capital Community College, where he has since transferred.

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is just getting so much bigger,” Mendez says.

How does he think older generations perceive his own?

“That all we think about is ourselves, about going out to the clubs. That we’re lazy,” he says.

And the reality?

“Oh my gosh, no, we’re so not lazy,” says Giovannie, who, aside from receiving some state aid, is putting himself through school. “I wish I could be lazy sometimes.”

So what is all this do-gooding about? Are today’s youth being prodded by adults or are they actually taking their own initiative?

Culbertson says students are learning the importance of volunteerism early on, with many schools requiring service projects for graduation. There’s less talk of youth being the “future and hope of tomorrow,” he says, and more focus on the valuable resources to societal change that they are now.

And a lot of credit, he says, can be given to their baby-boomer parents.

“These are parents who grew up during Vietnam,” Culbertson says. “And they have really high expectations of their children to be active community members.”

And it’s all been predicted, along with this generation’s drop in drug and alcohol use and in teen pregnancy.

Neil Howe and William Strauss have written several books on generational history, their most recent being “Millennials Rising: The Next Generation.”

Using their theory that the generations follow a rhythmic pattern of characteristics—responding to global, domestic and economic conditions—they predicted that the Millennials, the name for the generation beginning with the Class of 2000, would be “poised to define the 21st Century in much the same way as the G.I.s defined the 20th.”

From the snapshot Worley has gotten with her West Hartford students’ penny drive, she’s equally optimistic.

“This is an amazing bunch of kids,” she says. “If in a few weeks they came up with more than $1,500—if that’s how they carry on the rest of their lives, I think we’re all going to be better off.”

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