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At Our Service

Some 360 pairs of bare feet, peeking from
under green and white robes, walked into
a central Indiana high-school graduation
ceremony this spring. It wasn’t a senior
class conspiracy, but a student-inspired,
communitywide service project aimed
at raising awareness for the 300 million
shoeless people around the world.

Ditching their shoes at graduation was only one aspect of the students’ tennis
shoe drive in conjunction with Samaritan’s Feet, an international nonprofit that
hopes to collect and distribute 10 million pairs of shoes to the world’s needy in
just 10 years.

The Westfield High School seniors took their message to the community
at large and walked (sans shoes) into the local mayor’s office, convincing him
and other city employees to join them barefoot for one day. Some 3,000 pairs
of tennis shoes and $1,600 later, the 17- and 18-year-olds had not only helped
prevent disease and injury for those in need of shoes, but had strengthened
their own community by bringing the members of the community together for
a common cause.

Service-Oriented Roots Run Deep

So much for complaints about self-serving teens.
These central Indiana high-schoolers and their
counterparts across the country are contributing
to their communities more than ever. Eighty-six
percent of U.S. high schools encourage or offer community
service opportunities, and colleges look
favorably upon service-oriented experiences
when determining acceptance. Some
8.2 million 16- to 24-year-olds volunteered
last year, according to the Corporation for
National & Community Service, a federal
agency dedicated to strengthening communities
and fostering civic engagement
through service and volunteering.

This generation’s service-oriented roots
run so deep that these young adults judge
potential colleges and employers by the
quantity and quality of service opportunities
available. Can we then assume they’ll
choose to live in communities meeting the
same criteria? If so, competition will surely
rise among communities hoping to attract
and develop a service-oriented citizenship,
working for the betterment of all who live
in them.

"Service
and volunteerism
is a learned social behavior that can start in
childhood."

But service-oriented citizens don’t simply
appear overnight. Service and volunteerism
is a learned social behavior that can start in
childhood with mom’s and dad’s encouragement
or as members of the Girl Scouts, Boy
Scouts, Catholic Youth Organization, 4-H
and Key clubs.

It Starts with Mom and Dad

Parents play a big role in modeling charitable behavior to kids. With a baby strapped to
her front and two toddlers in tow, Beth Hoard, a Westfield, Ind., mom and occupational
therapist, stepped up when a local food bank lacked volunteers to unload Thanksgiving
donations. Mattie and Henry, then 3 and 2 years old, respectively, were big enough to tote
boxes of crackers and instant potatoes, one at a time, from the truck to the shelves.

In the five years since, the trio of kids, which now includes 5-year-old baby
brother John, has delivered meals to shut-in neighbors, participated in park
cleanup days that Beth organizes like Easter egg hunts, and helped Mom run
a church donation program. When Mattie, now 8, spied closeout hats, gloves
and mittens at a local department store this summer, she intuitively knew there
were kids in her hometown who would need them this winter. Shopping with
a $250 church donation, she led the way to purchasing hundreds of items at
bargain prices.

“I want our kids to be good citizens, appreciate the things they have and the
opportunities that we can provide,” Hoard says. “It’s neat to see their sense of pride
and self-esteem.”

Jyl Johnson Pattee gives parents practical tips online about raising service-oriented,
giving and charitable children. She suggests that honest conversation
about the hows and whys of community service is a great place to start. Progress
charts and positive verbal reinforcement, as well as service-oriented holiday
traditions and vacations, keep
kids motivated and inst i l l
gratitude and giving. Pattee
advises parents to also consider
teaching a twist on the Golden
Rule, “Do unto others as they
need you to do unto them”—
fi nd the need and fulfill it.

Empowering Teens

Volunteerism is empowering; just ask history-buff Joe Milan, who started volunteering
as a sixth-grader at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, a living history
museum. Joe, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Westfield High School, dedicates
at least 200 hours each year to his duties, safely instructing kids how to throw
axes in a Lenape Indian camp, teaching leatherwork, gardening and interacting
with visitors.

“Up until the time I started volunteering, I wasn’t the most outgoing person,”
Joe says. “But at Conner Prairie, you have to be friendly and talkative, initiate
conversation and read people’s body language.” Those skills came in handy when
he started high school last year. Making new friends was easier.

Joe’s mom, Jeannie Milan, says volunteering boosted her son’s self-esteem. “He’s
grown, and it’s really helped him become his own person and find himself. The
amount of pride he has in what he does there has done so much for him.”

Service opportunities are everywhere. Sometimes it takes parents nudging kids
along. Other times, kids lead. But projects are in the works right now and opportunities
exist in towns and cities, large and small, old and new. Their worth can’t
be measured simply by the personal gains of the children involved or the organizations
that benefit. Communities feel their impact as well.

Investigate, Plan, Engage, Think, Celebrate

Frequently, it is in school where kids begin learning about service. School
districts like Westfield Washington—which stress character education, including
responsibility, respect, compassion, hard work and honesty—often
use an educational method known as service-learning to introduce
skills like collaboration, innovation and communication. “These
are skills that promote success in life,” says Todd Lambert, executive
director of learning systems at Westfield Washington Schools.

Service-learning teaches young people how to investigate a need
within their community. They then develop a plan to meet that
need, engage in necessary activities, think about the impact of
those activities on their community and celebrate successes. “When
kids generate ideas, they are so much more meaningful to them,”
Lambert says. “It’s remarkable to sit with a group of young kids who
really care about their community, and just sit
back and let them go to work.”

"When
kids generate ideas, they are so much more meaningful to them."

When tied to academic standards and
learning objectives, service-learning can
improve student academic achievement. But
it can also make less measurable improvements,
such as increasing student engagement,
improving social behavior, building civic skills
and strengthening community bonds.

Nearly $20 million in grants went to schools,
tribes, and faith-based and community groups
this year to fund service-learning programs in
the United States.

Learn and Serve America, part of the
Corporation for National & Community
Service, oversees the grant process. Spokesman
Sandy Scott says, “Think of Learn and Serve
America as an on-ramp to a lifetime of civic
engagement. We’re trying to institutionalize
service-learning… and make service a part
of the daily life of every American.” The
National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
(ServiceLearning.org) is an informational
resource to grantees, teachers and parents
interested in getting kids involved in community
service.

Impacting Community Growth

When those barefooted, service-oriented
teens stepped into Mayor Andy Cook’s office
earlier this year, confident in their ability to
sell him on a shoeless day at Westfield City
Hall, he was more than happy to oblige.

Communities like Westfield exist all across
the country. Today, small towns, once miles
and miles from the nearest shopping mall,
morph into bedroom communities around larger
cities almost overnight. Population growth of 160
percent in eight years escalates a once-small town to city
status, but community spirit wanes when those people don’t
know one another.

“Communities drift apart through growth or indifference
and lose that sense of community, but if you put service and
volunteerism back into the mix, suddenly you redevelop
that sense of community,” Cook says.

Volunteerism is essential for building a sense of
pride and ownership in any community. With the
help of service-oriented adults and kids, Westfield
is emerging anew. Volunteer-driven revitalization
plans for the heart of the city are in the works.
Local artisans, restaurateurs and agricultural
vendors exhibit at outdoor markets and art
festivals. A troop of high-school Girl Scout
volunteers are remodeling Santa’s house and run a
free, community ice-skating rink each winter.

“We want to create a quality of life where
Westfield’s kids want to come back here after
college,” Cook says. “We want them to love their
lives here and come back here to raise their
own kids.”

Communities and individuals thrive through
collaboration, innovation and communication.
Introducing those skills at a young age through
service-learning can have big payoffs for kids like
the
Hoards and Joe Milan. And a service-oriented
citizenship, no matter how old or young, helps cities
like
Westfield relocate a sense of community and
speeds economic, cultural and social improvements.
Service makes a difference, and as Cook says, “For us, it’s
beginning to happen.”

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