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A Call to Serve

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By Rich Thomaselli

The year was 1960, and a charismatic young Senator from Massachusetts was elected President of the United States. He talked about the power of youth, and what it means to volunteer. Months later, when he was inaugurated, John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, and it was flooded with eager people looking to make a difference by teaching English in foreign countries, helping build infrastructure in impoverished lands, and more.

Today, all Americans – from young to old, from children to Baby Boomers to Seniors – are heeding the call of national service and volunteerism.

Volunteerism is the lifeblood of the smallest community to the greatest city. Even better, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have.

Always an Impact

"You know, you can be assigned the worst duty station, but you can make an impact in someone’s life through volunteering," says Hetty Flannery, who coordinates Hudson Valley Marine Spouses, an upstate New York organization comprised of the wives of United States Marines.

The Marine Spouses hold fundraisers for needy military families, and for the Marine Spouses Scholarship Fund, which awards $500 per recipient toward college tuition for children of Marines. Their biggest annual project is the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. Last year, the local club was collected 450 toys for needy children in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York.

But you don’t need to be in the military to answer the call to arms for volunteers. In 2008, more than 61 million adults volunteered. From 2002 to 2007, the number of volunteers across the country grew by more than a million each year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Always a Need

According to the Partnership for Public Service, the federal government currently needs to fill thousands of service jobs in such areas as medicine, public health, foreign languages, and information technology. AmeriCorps, one of several volunteer service organizations you can look into, along with VISTA (which is run by AmeriCorps) Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America.

All of these organizations have chapters in every state.

"We are at a critical moment in our nation's history," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a February committee hearing on ‘Renewing America Through Service and Volunteerism.’ "With our nation being tested by unprecedented challenges – the economic crisis, the energy crisis, struggling schools and more – our public needs are greater than ever. These tests also present an enormous opportunity to make Americans a part of the solution by tapping into their patriotic spirit and desire to serve."

At that same hearing, musical superstar Usher talked about how he attended the Boys and Girls Club (another organization where you can become actively involved) in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. The singer said he founded his own organization more than 10 years ago, the New Look Foundation, because he had not forgotten what the Boys and Girls Club did for him.

Usher said this era should be called "Generation ‘S’ for service. He said there were three key elements to volunteerism that cross generational boundaries. To wit:

1) [b]Engage[/b] more people in service, and do it by empowering them with the tools they need to lead. "Any true change has always come about because people have come together to make their voices heard. Generation S is taking that to new levels, because of their creativity, drive and comfort by using technology to mobilize the masses." How can you help? By providing the resources for them to do it.

2) [b]Change[/b] the perception of service within poor communities, where service can be equated with a "sentence" handed down by a judge. "But we can make it cool to serve by supporting initiatives that think outside the box," Usher said. "...Service is an incredible thing, and should be seen as not only the right thing to do, but a cool thing to do."

3) [b]Bolster[/b] organizations like Hands On USA, a volunteer organization trying to rebuild the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "As I have shared with you, I have seen what is possible when ... people are empowered with the right tools for success," Usher said.

Global and Local

Gerry Harrington has seen what happens when people of all ages are empowered. Gerry lives in Kingston, New York, and is the global strategic alliances and communications coordinator for Humanity’s Team, an international volunteer movement whose purpose is to help people come together when they recognize the common elements that humanity shares. The group is in more than 100 countries and plans to honor South African Bishop Desmond Tutu in April of 2009 for his own volunteer efforts.

But, locally, in his little neck of the woods in Kingston, Gerry wanted to do something that brought an entire community of differing races and religions together. So he created "Movies With Spirit," a monthly film series that, although they are shown in various houses of worship, are less about religion and more about inspiration.

Since its inception in September of 2006, the films for "Movies With Spirit" have included The Bucket List, Bruce Almighty, It’s a Wonderful Life, Defending Your Life, and Pay It Forward, among others.

Volunteers put it together; the houses of worship volunteer their space; the local movie rental shops volunteer the DVD.

"What I’ve found through the umbrella of volunteerism is that people can expand their awareness and find a capacity within themselves to help, to be of service, that they didn’t even know they had," Gerry says. "And they end up finding out they have a lot in common with other people. Others may look different, act different, sound different, or behave different. But when they all volunteer, they find there’s commonalities there."

Do you have ideas on how to get more people involved in the causes that matter to you? Share them on the discussion boards!

Sources:
Hetty Flannery, Hudson Valley Marine Spouses; an upstate New York organization
Gerry Harrington, Humanity’s Team; an international volunteer movement
AmeriCorps (www.americorps.org); VISTA (which is run by AmeriCorps)
Senior Corps (www.seniorcorps.org)
Learn and Serve America (www.learnandserve.org)

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