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Conference Gets Off to a Rousing Start

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Chicago--"There is no limit to what I can do'' were the opening words at the annual conference of Independent Sector at the Drake Hotel here.

But they were sung, not said, by a female soloist with the Soul Children of Chicago.

The citywide community choir was a spirited--and unconventional--start for the annual meeting of the Washington-based alliance of nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate-giving programs.

The choir's energy seemed boundless, and the singers' enthusiasm was so infectious that feet were tapping and heads were bouncing throughout the room.

Since it was founded in 1981, the choir has performed for foreign dignitaries and several U.S. presidents.

The conference program said the group "has evolved into an opportunity to showcase their talents, while learning about cooperative interaction with their peers in an environment that fosters mutual support, cultural enlightenment, academic achievement, and self-discipline."

And the choir's performance was a hard act to follow for conference leaders.

"I don't know what we're going to do to top this," said Raul Yzaguirre, the chairman of Independent Sector and the president of the National Council of La Raza.

Young people remained in the spotlight during the rest of the opening session, which featured a panel of Chicago-area youths.

The group included a member of City Year, one of the Americorps national-service programs; a high school freshman who counsels a 4th grader at a community center for girls; and the 16-year-old founder of What's Uptown Magazine, a free community publication.

Moderator Nancy Stevenson, the chief executive officer of Voices for Illinois Children, said the young panelists were committed and hardworking--many of them already equipped with pagers and calendar organizers to keep track of their appointments.

The young volunteers talked for an hour and a half about their experiences in community service. Several said their families had a significant influence on their decision to become volunteers.

"It's really important for adults to encourage youths to go out in the world and do something," said Rebecca Murray, 19, the program director of Share Your Care and a pre-physical-therapy major at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

Each panelist emphasized a desire that adults hear their concerns and take their ideas and dreams seriously.

"I think a lot of adults are insecure of us, that we can't possibly come up with a solution for something they have been thinking about for a while," said Hubert Neal Jr., a 17-year-old aspiring cartoonist who teaches art at a community center in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.

To the adults in the audience, he said: "Listen to us. Help us. Talk to us."

Chau Quach, the co-editor of What's Uptown Magazine, urged the audience to go one step further and make a personal commitment to get involved in the life of at least one young person. "If each of you would just reach out," she said, "that would just be 800 young people."

During a question-and-answer session afterward, one audience member asked the panelists what they thought about making community service a graduation requirement.

While acknowledging that such a requirement might motivate some students to get involved, many of the youths strongly opposed mandating service.

Caitlin Hollister, the City Year volunteer, said that, ideally, community service would become an expectation of the school culture and community, and, like athletics or music, it would become "just something that you do."

At a breakfast round table the next morning, two young adults involved with national service also seemed skeptical of mandated community service.

"Community service is now being looked at as a sentence," said Richard Blount, a member of Public Allies, a two-year-old urban-service corps.

"The whole notion of doing it is seen as punitive" by some, said Michael H. Evans, the director of constituent programs at Youth Service America, which provides leadership development, technical assistance, and other functions for service groups. "If you're going to have community service, it has to be a part of the curriculum, and it's got to start earlier."

Too often, he said, schools do not connect community service to the curriculum and broader academic objectives.

Yet both Mr. Blount and Mr. Evans suggested that what would be helpful is developing more incentives and formal recognition for students who are involved in community service. Some schools award student volunteers the equivalent of varsity letters, hoping to put it on par with recognition for students who excel in sports.

"That's the ultimate goal, to make [service] an essential part of America life," Mr. Evans said.

--Meg Sommerfeld

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