Gift Of Time

February 7, 2006 | By Gail Koch

As her peers spend downtime stationed in front of the TV, watching reruns of sitcoms and reality shows, Meagan Hennenfent is off the couch and volunteering in the community.

For the past few years, she’s stocked pantry shelves at The Harvest Soup Kitchen. Beginning today, she’ll head up a semester-long, after-school recreational program at the Ross Community Center.

‘I feel more connected to Muncie by doing this,” said the Ball State University senior. ‘And there are people out there who need to know that people my age care about them.”

Results from two major national surveys released in the past month indicate Hennenfent is part of a growing number of young adults who find it essential to give back to their communities.

Roughly 55 percent of American teens volunteered in 2004, a number nearly double that of adults, according to a federal study conducted in early 2005 by the U.S. government’s Corporation for National and Community Service.

The study—conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau and Independent Sector, a coalition of non-profit philanthropy groups —found that 15.5 million teenagers volunteered in 2004, contributing more than 1.3 billion hours of service.

And two out of three college freshmen say it is important to help others in need, according to recent findings from the Cooperative Institutional Research Project, a survey conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Of the 260,000-plus freshmen surveyed, 83 percent said they had volunteered at least occasionally as high school seniors.

Calling the findings ‘fantastic,” Hennenfent said they could be an indication her generation is ‘growing up a bit.”

‘With Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, I feel like college students are starting to take a different attitude about life in general,” she said. ‘Like, whether you’re for or against the war, you should do something to help others if you can.”

‘A busy generation’

Kathy Smith, Ball State’s associate director of leadership and service learning, has a different idea as to why more young adults are turning to volunteerism.

Citing the research of Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the book Millennials Rising: The Next Generation, Smith said today’s young adults are of a generation accustomed to keeping a busy schedule, one that incorporates community service.

‘These are students who are used to being extremely busy individuals, to having every spare moment of their day scheduled for them,” she explained. ‘So they don’t bat an eyelash about doing community service. And some even feel strange if they don’t.”

Of the students who volunteer through Ball State’s Student Voluntary Services (SVS) organization, about 60 percent are freshmen. Currently, 305 students are registered with SVS this semester, down from about 450 students last spring.

Outside of factors such as work and school, Smith said she is uncertain as to reasons for this semester’s decline. Overall, involvement in SVS has increased gradually over the past five or six years, she said.

Last fall, 713 students passed through her office, a number that may have been influenced by factors that included hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

‘Those natural disasters absolutely could have had something to do with it,” she said, noting that groups of students have voluntarily made trips to storm-damaged areas of the Gulf Coast to help with the relief effort.

Volunteers are vital

Without student volunteers, leaders of many not-for-profit, community-based organizations say their agencies would be hard-pressed to function.

‘If we didn’t have the partnerships we have with Ball State and other schools in the area, we could never give to the children what they need,” said Debra Dragoo, program coordinator at Motivate Our Minds.

On Monday, about 40 volunteers, mostly Ball State students, arrived at MOMs doorstep to register as volunteers for the semester. Dozens more were expected to register by week’s end.

‘I think it’d be great if every student could do this,” said sophomore Mike Ghilardi, filling out application forms in between some one-on-one time with MOMs participant Harold Smith, 10. ‘The university should look at making community service part of its core curriculum, even if it was just like an hour or something. Think of the difference that could make.”

The idea of making community service mandatory for students is one that’s caught on for at least one local school. New Castle Middle School is in its second year of a program that requires at least two hours of community service to be completed by all 610 students by the end of the school year.

Principal Kellie Stephen said the program has proven popular with the kids, many who already have completed their two-hour requirement and gone beyond school officials’ expectations.

‘Last year, we had one little girl do over 100 hours of service,” he said.

Smith said more people would be open to volunteerism ‘if they were aware of how much good it does.” The hope for his school’s community service program is to instill in students the desire to help others at a young age.

‘So that way, they will carry that desire on past high school and be more willing to help their communities as adults,” he explained.