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To Serve and Be Served: Voluntary Youth Service

April 05, 1987|Cynthia Parsons | Cynthia Parsons is the coordinator of SerVermont and the former education editor of the Christian Science Monitor.

CHESTER, VT. — There is some snail-paced progress from coast to coast in adopting the notion of 15-25-year-olds performing voluntary service, whether they are in high school or college, out of school or out of work. But as a long-time advocate of such a national-service idea, I keep waiting for real lightning to strike:

-- For President Reagan, for instance, not only to invoke the word volunteer , but also to embrace the concept and set up a national service organization.

-- For one of the several bills in the 100th Congress dealing with voluntary (or even mandatory) youth service to make it to the floor, if not to a vote.

In the meantime, there are these positive developments:

-- California has a growing number of conservation corps, each a little different, but the majority strive to have the work done be work that wouldn't otherwise be done--work that somehow enriches people, community and even the nation.

-- Massachusetts has the Thomas Jefferson Forum, which includes several public high schools, all committed to helping students do high-quality, person-to-person community service, to culminate in a forum linking the service performed with the rights and responsibilities of national citizenship.

-- Vermont has the nation's only statewide student community-service initiative, started by me because I believe students won't volunteer for national service if they haven't learned the joys of ervice while still in school.

-- Father Theodore M. Hesburgh (please see his article above), the retiring long-time president of Notre Dame, has called for a domestic Peace Corps and for a repayment to those who do national community service in college tuition payments--much the way the GI Bill rewards those who serve in the military.

-- More than 100 colleges and universities from Stanford to Brown have set up offices to coordinate service volunteers, and have begun paying close attention to the following request on the college admissions application form: "Describe your community service during junior and senior high school years."

Yes, there's still considerable controversy over what "national service" means. There are people determined to limit it to a kind of Peace Corps right-of-passage experience--and people determined to exclude military service in any form from their definitions.

And there are those who think national service is just another name for job-training of the hard-to-place and hard-to-educate juvenile underclass.

Then there are those who are "expected" to do community service, because they are the nation's future "leaders." Honor society members, student-body government officers, certain members of social clubs--take on community service as a way to develop "potential."

And at the other end of the social-success scale are those required to do community service precisely because they have not shown "leadership potential." Many communities, for example, provide community service as an alternative to jail or detention.

In January, 1985, when I began exploring community services nationwide with the aid of a research grant from the Edwin Gould Foundation for Children, national service was almost a forgotten issue. Only a handful of long-time advocates were still fanning what had become a a weak flame.

And the military--to meet its quota of service personnel--had found it necessary to push pay scales higher and higher, to entice 18-year-olds not with a call to service but to self-improvement ("Be all you can be!").

The military hasn't changed its tune. And there's plenty of evidence that today's young people are still enormously interested in "getting there"--wherever there is--without having to step off the ladder of success to help an elderly good cause to cross the street.

And yet there blows a new wind; I hear a heightened interest in volunteerism among the young, a longing for a cause worth energy and interest. While I spend a great deal of time visiting Vermont's schools, I also get around the country to ask young people about national service. Too often, they don't recognize the term; but as soon as I start talking about meeting human-service needs, a spark comes into their eyes.

Then I hear about college students who house-share with former convicts on parole in Nashville, Tenn.; about all-night weekend vigils serving hot lines to keep drunks off the road in Burlington, Vt.; about a reform-school student who asked not to be discharged before his "little brother" in a nearby crippled children's center could walk on his new crutches.

How to raise those sparks and put national service higher up on the national agenda? How to accelerate the snail's pace?

-- Every elementary school should ask every teacher to integrate some community service within course requirements.

-- Every guidance counselor in every public secondary school should urge each student to complete a portfolio of information about all voluntary service done in school, local community, church, and/or international settings.

-- Every post-secondary institution, as part of its admissions' procedure, should ask to review each voluntary service portfolio.

-- Every nonprofit or government agency willing to use student volunteers should establish a system among all schools and colleges for reaching interested students.

-- The 100th Congress should pass a bill calling for a commission to set up a national service center, and to design a method to reward all national service (civilian or military) with tuition payments in post-secondary institutions of the volunteer's choice.

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