TEEN-AGERS CATCH VOLUNTEER SPIRIT At Havre de Grace High School, helping others is the thing to do


Uh, . . . excuse me, please. I hate to interrupt all the fun that the doom-and-gloom crowd are having right now, but this is kinda important.

Contrary to popular misconception, not all teen-agers are abusing drugs, dropping out of school or involved in a pregnancy. Take the kids at Havre de Grace High School in Harford County, for example. Would you believe that 25 percent of the students do volunteer work, logging in a total of more than 4,000 hours of community service this year? Sorry to shatter the myth, folks.

Since 1983, the volunteer spirit has continued to grow at the high school, starting with a tiny seed in Donald Osman's English class. After reading "A Christmas Memory," a short story by Truman Capote, a handful of students decided to visit a nursing home. The next year the number grew to 20. This year the volunteer club has 110 members. When service becomes a norm, it has a tendency to feed on itself.

The volunteer organization is aptly named SMILES, for Service Makes an Individual's Life Extra Special. Monthly meetings draw between 25 and 50 active young adults, with a slate of elected officers to help guide the group.

In a typical year the group puts on a Thanksgiving dinner for "anyone who needs a place to come to for the holiday for something to eat," reports SMILES President Karen Romanelli. Then there's the Holiday Shopping Tour they put on for needy children. All major annual events are paid for by funds raised by the teens themselves.

The highlight of the year, to a good slice of the Havre de Grace community, is the Senior Citizen's Prom, held each spring. The event, which draws approximately 100 seniors, features a DJ, lots of decorations, good food, dancing and fun for youth and seniors alike.

But group projects are not the only type of volunteerism encouraged by the organization. SMILES members are involved in individual volunteer efforts ranging from church groups to 4-H and Scout leaders, from preschool help to nursing home visits.

As the Maryland Board of Education debates requiring volunteerism (a slight contradiction in terms, no?) for graduation, perhaps it should consider implementing the No. 1 tenet of marketing -- ask your intended audience what they feel is needed. I have a feeling the Karen Romanellis of Maryland will give them an earful.

"There's a common misperception about teen-agers," the outspoken 17-year-old senior says. "We're not all doing bad things. Most of us want to help out and volunteer. SMILES is a good example of what teens can do."

My introduction to SMILES came at an awards dinner sponsored by the Maryland chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives (NSFRE). Their annual National Philanthropy Day program included the Youth Philanthropy Awards, co-sponsored by the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers and Partners for Giving.

Karen Romanelli was one of the award winners. Another was Lauren J. Ross of Eastern Intermediate School in Silver Spring, who raised $11,380 to fight multiple sclerosis. Several fund-raising professionals at my table took down her name. (Lauren, if you need an agent to sort through the job offers, give me a call).

This type of recognition event needs to be institutionalized if we want to foster volunteerism as a norm. My hat goes off to all three organizations for recognizing the efforts of these youth.

Now, back to the notion of requiring community service for graduation. It's a typical, dull, uncreative and simplistic bureaucratic reaction to a need that should have been addressed long ago.

With community service in the public's eye right now, why not misuse state power and force youth to serve the community?

Even foregoing the obvious ethical problems of requiring someone to do public service (is this an alternative to incarceration?), the plain fact of the matter is that it is bad public policy.

Instead, why not bring Maryland's wonderful philanthropic resources together to help nurture volunteerism in youth? Ask kids what is important to their world. What would they like to see improved? Then, using a grass-roots approach focused on changing the norms surrounding volunteerism, help young people marshal their energies for the betterment of the community.

Will such programs work? Of course they will. "I guess we all get such a good feeling from helping people. You see them smile and realize that you helped them. It feels great." Just ask Karen Romanelli.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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