Global Youth Service Day

By Nora Fleming — April 13, 2011 5 min read

Middle school students in California have been raising abalone to return to the ocean and have organized efforts to show the community that overfishing has caused a crisis for the local abalone population. A group of 7th graders in Colorado hosted a town meeting with local residents and energy experts to address the pros and cons of their town’s uranium mining. High school students in Vermont launched an ongoing lobbying campaign to get their state legislature to pass a smoking ordinance that prevents adults from smoking in cars around children. And 4th graders in Washington planned a festival and forum on foster care and adoption to raise local awareness.

These efforts and those performed by millions of other students nationwide and around the globe will be recognized tomorrow and throughout the weekend on Global Youth Service Day, a celebration for youth-service participation.

For three days, April 15-17, children throughout the U.S. and in more than 100 countries will contribute to their communities in a variety of service activities, but these efforts are not just for the weekend. In most cases, they are part of thousands of service projects that have been ongoing.

The celebration, which started in 1988 in the U.S. and 10 years ago overseas, is the signature event of Youth Service America, a national nonprofit that has supported youth service and service-learning efforts throughout the country for two and a half decades. Schools, community organizations, and youth clubs provide the avenues for the children to participate in the community-service projects, but the ideas behind them typically stem from the children themselves.

According to Susan Abravanel, vice president of education at YSA, the organization encourages young people to see service in a continuum, as an ongoing endeavor that motivates them to increase their awareness of community problems and potential ways to alleviate them.

“Part of the problem [today] is that young people are finding that the education they are getting in school is not relevant to their lives, or to the communities in which they live. Kids are getting up in the morning with problems all around them and going to school, but the school is not teaching them what they need in order to do something about those problems,” Abravanel said. “At YSA, we are trying to engage young people first by acknowledging the problems they are seeing, then by taking the skills and knowledge they have—or need to learn—and applying them to find solutions for those problems.”

Each year, participation in the event (and in ongoing projects) has been on the rise, said Steve Culbertson, YSA’s chief executive officer. New technology has now enabled children to connect to one another around the world in what YSA has called the “global learning exchange.” Students are able to compare projects and the solutions they have developed with their peers throughout the globe: Children in New Mexico trying to think of a service project to reduce water consumption and combat local water scarcity may network with children in Australia who are trying to come up with the same, Culbertson said. The service projects are also transcending age brackets. A number of them this year have been a combined effort of elementary-, middle-, and high school-aged students.

Culbertson said increasing numbers of schools, after-school providers, and community organizations are weaving service learning into youth education and youth programs today. The creativity and engagement brought by youths participating in service is a great asset, he said, as young people make up one of the world’s largest demographic groups, and participation in service typically leads to more service later on.

“We do ‘at’ kids and we do ‘for’ kids, but very rarely do we ‘do with’ kids or position kids themselves to be the actors delivering the service,” said Culbertson. “We need to change that, to realign our programming so that young people are on the giving and serving stick. It’s much more powerful to ask them to serve rather than to serve them.”

Through the support of partners and donors like UnitedHealthcare, State Farm, and Sodexo, as well as some federal funding, YSA has been able to issue many micro-grants, totaling more than $1 million this year, to help jump-start and implement many of these projects. UnitedHealth HEROES program, for example, has helped fund projects, designed by youths such as healthy eating and fitness programs, to combat childhood obesity. Funding and donations also help support a number of YSA’s subprograms, such as Semester at Service, where students complete 70 hours of service on a group community-service project for half the school year.

Yet some of this funding is at risk. This year’s federal budget proposals to reduce service learning and civic education learning, mentioned the other day, have in fact been included in the new budget agreement. One proposal is the elimination of federal funding for Learn and Serve America, which provides grants through YSA to underprivileged students to design service projects focused on the environment and disaster preparedness. Abravanel said she hopes, even with the proposed reductions, the federal government will forward-fund the programs to maintain these projects’ sustainability.

But while grants and funding have helped support many of the projects that will be recognized at the end of this week, most of them have relied on the service provided by children and community support to be implemented.

Image 1: Seventh graders from Tacoma, Wash., help improve the water quality of the creek behind their school to bring back the creek’s salmon.
Image 2: In a lab at the University of Washington, the Tacoma students conduct water-quality analyses with chemistry professors.
Image 3: Middle school students in New York City prepare soil for an urban vegetable garden with help from City College students. No stores in their community sell fresh vegetables.
All photos courtesy of YSA.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.

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