by Richard Higgins
I admit it: I am a cheerleader for Global Youth Service Day (GYSD). It’s not easy advocating this lesser-known cousin, competing for your attention with Earth Day and National Volunteer Week, and possibly other observations. But, I would like to challenge you to carve out some of your time this coming weekend to give some loving attention to GYSD, and here’s why:
The UN estimates nearly 35% of the 7 billion people inhabiting this earth are children and young people between the ages of 5 and 25. Here in the US, almost 28% of our 309 million residents fall into that age range. That’s one in every three people walking among us, so, chances are very good that if you do not fall into this age range yourself, you are probably raising, teaching, or at least well-acquainted with, someone who is. And, yes, I’m going to say it: They are our future.
I don’t know about you, but if my future is in their hands, I’d want them to be taking a keen interest in the communities we are living in, and challenge them to find ways to help make them better. And, in fact, many already are.
Steven A. Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, the organization that launched GYSD in 1988, said it best in a recent media release:
“Now is the time to activate youth to be the leaders of today, and one of the most effective ways to do this is by challenging them to solve communities problems through service. With passion, creativity and fresh perspective, young people are uniquely positioned to come up with new and innovative ways to improve their communities. On Global Youth Service Day, the world stands in awe as we see what is possible when kids take the lead as problem-solvers.”
Now in its 24th year, GYSD 2012, which is April 20-22, will see over two million young people in over 100 countries around the world and in all 50 states—including right here in Maine—mobilizing to create change in their communities. It is literally the largest service event in the world, and the only major event dedicated to youth. And, what might they do? Well, projects range from one-time community clean-ups to city- or country-wide public awareness campaigns. Many GYSD projects address the world’s most critical issues, such as childhood health and well-being, civil rights and environmental conservation.
Here in Maine, Portland’s Lincoln Middle School held a press conference on April 11, where they publicly issued a challenge to all Maine youth to get out and commit an act of service on GYSD weekend. Hundreds of young people, from Presque Isle to Sanford, are taking the challenge, and even students from Lisbon, CT, have responded with their pledge to do service activities on GYSD. They have pledged to do an amazing variety of community service activities, from traditional neighborhood clean-ups and planting community gardens to helping remove stray animals from the streets and assisting the community in disaster preparedness! These young people are willing to help make a positive impact in their communities.
Regular readers of this blog may think I am preaching to the choir, but it bears repeating that when young people are involved in meaningful service activities, everyone benefits. There are plenty of studies that show this. (Check out this fact sheet for a good summary of who benefits and how.) Okay, a skeptic may retort that a one-off clean-up is hardly life-altering. And, that may be true. I would even go so far as to say the mere requirement of completing so many hours of community service as a high school graduation requirement is not only an ineffective way to instill a sense of civic responsibility in young people, it may even have the unintended effect of turning them off from community service. But, meaningful service activities, ones that can be sparked by GYSD and nurtured by the adults in young peoples’ lives—parents, teachers, community members—are not usually one-offs and are not usually mandated by an authority.
But, I digress. Circling back, I’ve given you three good reasons why you should observe Global Youth Service Day this weekend. So, whatever else you are observing this weekend, why not at least make it a ‘two-for’ and incorporate a few hours for GYSD by getting youth you know involved in a community service activity, or joining one they are organizing?
Let me leave you with some tips and suggestions on making your or your young person’s GYSD service activity meaningful:
• Young people have active and meaningful leadership roles;
• The service projects meet real community needs and priorities; and
• Young people are involved at all stages.
We’d love to hear back from you! Please leave a comment below and share pictures and stories of your GYSD 2012 successes!
Richard Higgins is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member serving at the Maine Commission for Community Service. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer, serving in the Philippines with a focus on educator training and community development. Prior to that, he worked as a Japanese-language interpreter for more than a decade.