The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, a friend of eight-year-old victim Martin Richard posted a picture of Richard holding a banner for peace, which read, "No more hurting people."
When senseless tragedies happen, especially those that take the lives of children, our young people become confused and frightened by the world. The author of Last Child in the Woods describes how modern society has disconnected today's children from nature. Similarly, tragedies have disconnected children from community.
"In the face of scary, tragic and overwhelming events," says Concetta Anne Bencivenga, executive director of GenerationOn, "kids don't actually have the emotional skills to process [what they see and hear]. Service and doing an activity for another is one of the best ways to help them process information."
Proactive service creates a gradual alchemy that transforms victimizing fear into triumphing hope.
As a child becomes increasingly aware of the big world outside of the protected family home -- through exposure to news stories, academic studies, or personal experiences -- anxieties can increase. Children can feel powerless, as they witness major events and adult reactions to those events, all the while being told to simply focus on academic studies.
Service, however, gives youth power to engage in and have impact on the world. "It puts a young person in the driver's seat," says Steve Culbertson President and CEO of in Youth Service America (YSA). Culbertson firmly believes that youth successfully can solve challenging issues, and he literally puts his money where his mouth is: Four children as active members of his board -- which among other things, determines his salary.
Girls Inc. also believes in the power of youth in solving social dilemmas, and research backs up their claim: their PEERsuasion mentor service programs have proven to reduce risky behavior, strengthen sense of self, and build healthy life skills in individuals from downtrodden neighborhoods. According to Judy Vredenburgh, President and CEO of Girls Inc, each girl who breaks the failure pattern becomes a contributing member of society by positively engaging with others. "When teenagers feel good about themselves and have positive relationships with each other," she adds, "they actually have positive relationships with all the adults in their lives, especially their parents."
Service projects give children the opportunity to voice concern, solve problems, and develop skills needed to succeed in the world, and there are many programs available on the local and national levels. Little children are taking small steps that accumulate to big progress in some of the challenges facing humanity, and Culbertson is not at all surprised by the accomplishments of our youth. "Most of the human change that has happened in the world throughout history has been driven by young people," he reminds us.
Biologically, he says, the child's brain is constructed to 1) seek novelty, 2) take risks, and 3) engage peers. The top enterprises in the world today in fact were started when the founders were teenagers. Think Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Hewlett-Packard, and Mark Zuckerberg: Tthey turned their respective play spaces into an R&D lab, film studio, technology factory, and communication hub. Respecting and empowering youth to engage in their natural capacity effectively contributes to a thriving society.
If we give children opportunity to be visionaries and problem-solvers, as well as to gather their peers into action, we will be amazed by where these children can take the world -- not only next generation, but right now.
In March 2007, I told eight seventh graders, "The world as it is today, with all the wars, famine and suffering, is the world that I created with my generation. It is not the world that I had hoped for when I was 13-years-old. No one asked me about my vision or thought to encourage my dream. I am here to support you in visualizing the world you would like to build and take the steps you want to get there."
Two years later, this handful of youngsters had impacted 10,000 needy children in Africa, through various projects -- sending school supplies to Darfur refugees; sending a nurse, community advisor and engineer to Uganda; and securing water filtration systems to a school complex community of nearly 1,000 children and educators in Uganda -- reducing their medical costs by 40 percent.
"It's adults who don't see young people as assets and resources," notes Culbertson. "We need to make room at the table for young people and for their ideas and for their contributions." We must each do our part, he continues, in giving children the chance to show their potential. As former President Bill Clinton remarked, in a recent Clinton Global Initiative University's meeting, "Young people have a greater ability to enact change than ever before."
This April 26-28 is a great opportunity to get started: Youth Service America is sponsoring Global Youth Service Day, with 1,500 projects nationally and worldwide. Following are additional youth service project resources to get kids involved with, now and down the line: