Out of the evil of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, younger Americans have looked for and found many opportunities to serve their communities, nation, and world. Students from elementary schools to middle schools to high schools are taking up President Bush's call to be "Citizens not Spectators."
Young people are making a dramatic answer to President Bush's landmark call to volunteer service. Studies show young people in the United States today are volunteering more than any other generation in American history. Thanks to our most creative teachers, one-half the high schools and one third of all schools link service to the curriculum through service-learning. Each year, America's teenagers give over 2.4 billion hours of service back to their communities valued at over $30 billion. If youth service were an enterprise, it would make the Fortune 500.
More than three million youth will demonstrate this dedication to service for the 14th annual National Youth Service Day on April 26-28, 2002. Through tens of thousands of service projects over three days, National Youth Service Day (www.YSA.org/nysd) is a public education campaign that highlights the amazing contributions that young people make to their communities 365 days a year. Young people will design and lead signature service projects in areas ranging from literacy and the environment, to healthcare, hunger, and help for the elderly. As the largest service event in the world, National Youth Service Day illustrates the President's belief that youth are not the hope of tomorrow in America; they are the hope of today!
President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush are the Honorary Co-Chairs of National Youth Service Day 2002. As the first large-scale service event since the President's call, National Youth Service Day projects in small towns and big cities across the nation will provide an entry point for thousands of young people and fitting recognition for the millions of others who already make service an integral part of their lives.
One of the many teenagers doing a project on National Youth Service Day is Sara Annear, age 18. As a young child Sara had been in and out of foster homes. By the age of 14 she was abused, addicted to drugs, homeless, and suicidal. On one fateful day, Sara was to meet her boyfriend and best friend for a planned robbery, but through various circumstances never made it to the crime scene. Her friends received life sentences. At age 15, she was put on probation for evading arrest, truancy, and theft. A local social service agency was contacted and Sara was placed in the Methodist Children's Home, Waco, Texas. It was there Sara began what she describes as her "comeback."
Sara is now President of Students Who Are Concerned About Drugs and Safety (SWACADAS) - a peer-to-peer counseling group to educate junior high and elementary school students about drugs. She has been drug-free for two years, makes straight A's as a senior at Waco High School, and will begin her freshman year at the University of North Texas in the fall. For National Youth Service Day, Sara will lead youth in Waco to raise money for teenagers in Afghanistan - using the money raised to purchase care packages filled with toothbrushes and blankets.
Sara, the recent winner of the Youth Service America-Hasbro Teens with the Courage to Give Award, credits her ability to help others with also being able to heal herself.
Not every young volunteer has a story as dramatic as Sara's. But leaders like Sara inspire us as adults to remember that there is no magic switch that creates a commitment to a life of service. We know that cultivating a spirit of service is best done in childhood, enabling youth to be community leaders and problem-solvers, no matter what their age. We also know that the number one reason young people volunteer for the first time is that someone asks them to.
Fortunately, schools have been stepping up to the plate. Much of the growth in youth service has been driven by the increase in service-learning in schools across America. Teachers have found that linking academic curriculum to hands-on community service increases the retention of information. I know the academic lessons I remember most were the things I "learned by doing" in school and in my community.
So what will you do for National Youth Service Day and over the next years of your life? Look around your neighborhood. Where is the need the greatest? What person or problem could benefit from your amazing energy, commitment, and idealism? As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve."
It will be a great day for our country when service is the common expectation and common experience of every young American. When I see the tremendous leadership that our Nation's young people demonstrate every day, I'm convinced that day is right around the corner.
For more information about National Youth Service Day, visit www.YSA.org/nysd (Culbertson is president and CEO of Youth Service America.)