By Barbara A. Lewis, author of The Teen Guide to Global Action
Students at the University of Michigan in 1960 must have caught their breath when John F. Kennedy challenged them to contribute two years of their lives in volunteer work. What? Two years? Within weeks of his inauguration, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. Any U.S. citizen over the age of 18 was invited to participate. His early summons motivated 14,500 courageous, young adults to volunteer in developing countries around the world. Since then over 215,000 Americans have contributed worldwide, and there are impressive stories of their service.
The Philippines is located on the Ring of Fire, an area that experiences catastrophic weather, earthquakes, and floods. Peace Corps volunteer Karen Grace Lee has worked in the Philippines as a Web developer to help the disaster reporting system get information out more quickly and broadly.
The Peace Corps is approaching its 54th birthday on March 1. Today, volunteers serve in sixty-four countries in projects involving education, health, environment, community, economic development, and agriculture. Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level with the local people.
Sadly, the number of volunteers dwindled after 1979. But the Peace Corps recently announced good news. In 2014, a large group of service-minded people increased the numbers to 17,336.
In addition to the great humanitarian effort of Peace Corps volunteers, they should also receive some credit for sparking enthusiasm for service throughout the United States and the world. Today, countless organizations provide opportunities for people to serve, and many people volunteer individually with their own projects.
There are many, varied stories of those involved in service. Youth Service America (YSA) engages millions of young people of all ages in service to their communities in the United States and more than 100 other countries. It sponsors the Global Youth Service Day—coming up April 17 to 19—and is the largest celebration of youth service in the world. However, anyone can participate by going to their website. Many schools get involved in such projects.
Hasib Muhammad had great ideas for service at an early age: “I started my leadership adventure . . . as the line leader of my first-grade class. But when I wanted to lead a book drive in the community, I was rejected, and my line-leader credentials were overlooked.” But he kept at it, helping at a food bank and making other contributions. Now at the ripe old age of 18, he is VP of engagement at Greening Forward in Georgia, a youth-led environmental organization.
After watching the movie Annie, six-year-old Tara V. of Missouri wanted to help children who didn’t have permanent homes. She enlisted the help of her kindergarten class to create a service group called “Kids Helping Kids.” They filled backpacks with things they thought the needy children would want, such as toothpaste, pajamas, and of course—stuffed animals.
Four young leaders from Guatemala started a creative breakdance group to educate the community about conservation. When they perform their athletic moves across the floor, the crowds gather. Their motivating and entertaining message catches attention: “Dance as if your life depends on it.”
Volunteering is a part of good citizenship. It shows that people accept responsibility—not just for themselves—but also for the community around them. Volunteers come in all sizes, shapes, and colors and are only measured by their commitment to help. But the bonus prize is that when they reach out to help others, they develop leadership and self-confidence within themselves.
It has been said before that volunteers built Noah’s Ark, but professionals built the Titanic! Hats off to the Peace Corps and to volunteers across the globe.