When I graduated from high school in 1988 and then college four years later, I never considered completing a year of volunteer service. I wasn’t familiar with the concept and none of my friends were volunteering either.
I knew of the Peace Corps, which would allow me to serve internationally, but AmeriCorps, through which I could do a year of service here in America, wasn’t created until 1993. Other programs like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, City Year, and Teach for America were offering young people the opportunity to do a year of full-time service in the United States, but in the early 1990s they were all relatively unknown and small.
Thankfully, times have changed. Young people today want to give back in real and significant ways and more than ever are choosing a year of service as their way to make an impact. In fact, the number of applications to many service programs has skyrocketed in the last few years. AmeriCorps applications grew from 91,399 in 2008 to 258,829 in 2010 and applications to City Year nearly tripled from 3,500 in 2008 to 9,200 in 2011.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of full-time volunteering, here’s how it works: a young person chooses from hundreds of full-time volunteer positions at organizations across the country.
Then they complete an application process and if accepted, they volunteer for at least 1,700 hours over the course of a year. As the executive director of City Year in Washington, D.C., I oversee 160 17-24 year olds who are spending this year serving as tutors, mentors, and role models to more than 4,200 students at 14 D.C. public schools.
Our young people help improve student attendance, behavior, and course performance so that more students are in school and on track to graduate here in DC and in 20 other cities across the United States.
But City Year is just one of the service programs available. If education isn’t their passion, young people can serve in other areas, such as affordable housing by volunteering at Habitat for Humanity or they can help improve healthcare access by working with the Community HealthCorps.
Despite the increased number of young people looking to serve, I would love to see the numbers even higher. I believe the number one factor holding young people back from serving is a lack of support and encouragement from their parents. I have found this to be especially true among high-achieving African-American men. One of City Year’s hardest to recruit cohorts is African-American males.
I am told again and again by teachers, guidance counselors, and staff from community-based organizations that one of the main reasons for this is that because high-achieving African-American males have many options once they graduate from high school or college (college scholarships, high-paying private sector job opportunities, etc.), their parents don’t want them to do something off of the traditional school to job path. Often these parents fear that if they step off that path for a year they will not get back on it.
Parents need to understand that doing a year of service has numerous benefits. There are tangible things like a weekly stipend, healthcare, and $5,000 toward undergraduate or graduate school once you complete your year of service. There are also intangible benefits, like learning to work on a diverse team, first-hand exposure to complex social issues like the achievement gap or homelessness, and the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference in the community.
In addition, for many young people, a year of service gives them a productive way to figure out their next step in life. There is a misconception among some that service programs are a place for young people that otherwise couldn’t get jobs elsewhere.
That is not the case. In 2010, 12 percent of Ivy League seniors applied to Teach for America. And City Year corps members that graduated this past June are now attending schools like Yale, Duke and New York University.
I urge parents, especially African American parents, to put aside their fears and encourage their children to commit a year to service. It will not only benefit their children, it will help change the world.
Jeff Franco has been the executive director of City Year Washington, DC since 2008. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he has lived in Washington, DC for 16 years.
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