Home-grown contributions to National Youth Service Day; 3 million young volunteers across the country work to aid their communities


In what was billed as one of the nation's largest volunteer events, an estimated 3 million young people turned out for 10,000 community service projects this weekend in all 50 states -- including more than 500 youths around Baltimore.

National Youth Service Day featured everything from self-defense clinics to neighborhood cleanups, including planting and cleaning at five of Baltimore's Police Athletic League recreational centers.

After gathering for a volunteer fair yesterday and listening to a few words from Mayor Martin O'Malley, the young people fanned out to sites around town.

At the Lillian Jones PAL center in West Baltimore, nine adult volunteers with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps -- dressed in uniforms of gray T-shirts and khaki cargo pants -- painted a mural announcing a new computer lab, with the help of 11 of the center's regular patrons.

One of those, Byran Chestnut, 8, proudly displayed his contribution to the project: a drawing of a row of rowhouses with a big blue Earth and orange sun above. "You can put anything on the wall that we want to to represent PAL," the third-grader said. His 10-year-old brother, Ivan, painted an orange-and-black happy face next to the mural.

Spurred on by the possibilities of the Internet, volunteer centers that support projects such as yesterday's are booming. In Baltimore, a local clearinghouse for volunteer projects -- Hands Across Baltimore -- is expanding to a new, higher-profile center called Volunteer Central, which will double its board of directors and add programs that include a volunteer school. The expansion will be funded with seed money from the St. Paul Cos., and the new organization will design projects in partnership with local volunteer groups.

Volunteer Central, which will formally begin its new programs in October, has published a new guide to encourage teen volunteering, called IMPACTeen!, which is being distributed to local schools.

"We've had such a huge request for projects for youth," said Kristi Neidhardt, interim director of the new organization. "One summer, 3,000 kids called."

Service 'ambassadors'

Around the country, other service groups are trying new gimmicks to draw kids into volunteering. In the manner of the Ronald McDonald carnivals and Jerry Lewis telethon projects, Youth Service America, which presented National Youth Service Day, has been encouraging kids to be service "ambassadors," with project kits and goodies to hook them.

Studies show that youth voluntarism is on the rise -- by 12 percent over the past decade, according to one -- spurred by the increasing number of schools that encourage or require service as part of the curriculum. In Maryland, students must complete 75 hours of service to graduate from high school.

Statistics on adult voluntarism don't paint as clear a picture. A recent study of U.S. volunteers found that although the number of adults who volunteer had risen, the average number of hours each spent doing good works had dropped from 4.2 hours a week in 1995 to 3.5 hours in 1998.

For an increasingly large percentage of adult volunteers -- 41 percent -- "serving is a sporadic, one-time activity," according to a report by Independent Sector, a coalition of philanthropic, corporate and nonprofit organizations that conducted the survey.

Dismantling stereotypes

Steven Culbertson, chief executive officer of Youth Service America, said that such events have symbolic value in a world where youths are unfairly stereotyped as violent and disaffected.

"I think it's a lot like Thanksgiving," Culbertson said. "It's a time for the country to pause and look at young people and look at what they are in their resources."

The one-day projects also make students more appreciative of programs, such as PAL centers, that serve them, said John Liakakos, a community relations specialist with AmeriCorps, which sent 59 volunteers to help with yesterday's PAL center spruce-up.

"A lot of them have respect for their center," Liakakos said of the children who took part. "They're not going to throw their soda can down by the tree they planted or the rose garden they laid."

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