Officials hope younger people fill volunteer gap

February 9, 2006 | By Robyn Russo

Every day, Ruth Malcahy drives her winding route through Brighton Township and Beaver to drop off hot lunches at senior citizens’ homes.

Early Friday mornings, she can be found in the Bridgewater Meals on Wheels kitchen, preparing food for later deliveries. She’s been doing it so long, most of the people on her route are like family, Malcahy said, and at 91 years old, she intends to keep up her volunteer schedule as long as she can.

But Lorinda Hayes, the Meals on Wheels service coordinator, said sometimes she worries about just how much longer Malcahy—and the other senior citizens who make up the bulk of its volunteer force—will be able to serve. While the average age of a meal recipient is 72, the average age of a volunteer is just four years younger, 68, Hayes said.

“I’m not sure what is going to happen,” Hayes said.

Other local charitable organizations face the same concern, as they also rely heavily on seniors, and officials aren’t sure how they’ll keep work going as these volunteers become too old or sick to help.

But new national surveys and research have shown people in their teens and early 20s are showing more interest than ever in volunteer work, leaving volunteer organizers hoping this youngest generation will step up and fill the service gap.

Hayes said Meals on Wheels, a project of the Lutheran Service Society, has been operating in western Pennsylvania for 37 years. Because of the program’s daytime hours, it’s hard for working people to volunteer as drivers, Hayes said, so filling the routes became harder as more and more families became two-income households.

Dolly Richeal, volunteer coordinator for the American Red Cross in Brighton Township, said her organization has seen its volunteer force dwindle from 30 to about 12 “regulars” during the past six years. Nearly all of the volunteers, who staff blood drives, are seniors, Richeal said.

“I had very dedicated ones that I lost to illness, to death, and that’s to be expected,” Richeal said.

Both Hayes and Richeal said they think that seniors, as retired people, have the time to volunteer more, but they think their generation also has a different attitude toward service.

“You can tell from generation to generation,” Richeal said. “I think they (seniors) had a strong mindset that to give back is just something you do.”

Alan Booth, a professor of sociology and human development at Penn State University, said there has been a decline in public service over the last 30 years. The World War II generation, Booth said, grew up with very team-oriented values, which led to an expectation that everyone who could participated in civic service. The baby boomers and Generation X, however, moved toward a mindset more concerned with the individual, Booth said.

“A lot of things have changed since World War II—our family structure has changed enormously …having to have two incomes to maintain living standards, which may have led to this more general concern for the self,” Booth said. “Whether this will change in the near future, I don’t know, but we are seeing some turnaround to more traditional values.”

Social historians Neil Howe and William Strauss, however, expect the “millennial” generation—children born in 1982 and after—to echo the World War II attitude toward volunteerism. In an interview about their 2000 book, “Millennials Rising,” on the Web site of publisher Random House, the authors write that today’s teens and young 20-somethings will be “re-energizing” a sense of community and public service.

A recent survey by the Higher Education Institute at UCLA shows this year’s college freshmen seem to fit this prediction. In the survey, 66.3 percent of the 260,000 freshmen surveyed said it was essential or very important to help others who are in difficulty, the highest response in 25 years.

About 82 percent said they volunteered at least occasionally in high school, and about 67 percent said they intend to continue volunteering in college, both all-time high responses for the survey’s 40-year history.

More locally, Terry Milani, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Volunteer Outreach office, said interest in service has increased over the past decade, with notable growth since the late 1990s. Milani said he thinks the development of national service programs such as AmeriCorps, as well as the development of courses at the collegiate and high school level that give students credit for volunteer work, have boosted youth volunteerism.

“It has much to do with what the institution will do to make it accessible,” Milani said of service among students. “We’re trying to make it part of the culture, to make them realize that citizenship and service is part of being an educated person.”

Volunteerism in the youngest generation, however, might not always come from an altruistic drive. Some volunteer organizers pointed to an increase in school requirements for service, and a study released last week by the University of Wisconsin showed many students in that state admitting to using volunteering as a way to pad their college resumes.

According to Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the state made senior projects a graduation requirement in 1993. Although the state does not dictate the specific standards of the projects, many schools incorporate a community service requirement, McDonald said. Plus, the state also began receiving federal funds in 1993 to set up service-learning centers.

Hayes and Richeal said while they sometimes see senior volunteers’ children or grandchildren coming in to lend a hand, they haven’t seen a surge in young volunteers yet. Both volunteer coordinators said school projects do bring younger volunteers to their organizations, namely during holiday and summer breaks, and they hope such school-required service will eventually translate into the higher levels of adult volunteerism.

“We do see them (teenage volunteers) when they do it for school projects,” Richeal said. “But will they come out when they don’t have to? I don’t know, but we’ll gladly take them.”