Our Kids Can Change The World -- Really

The Millennial Generation is probably the most surveyed, researched and dissected demographic in modern history, the delight of marketers, retailers, educators and political activists.

We know they love technology. We know they're optimistic. We know they are spiritual but not orthodox. We know they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama because his message of hope resonated with them.

And yet, once you scratch the surface and get beyond the statistics, you find a generation that shares the same fundamental goals as the Baby Boomers 40 years ago -- they want to change the world. And I think they might just succeed more than other generations that lost their youthful idealism in the pursuit of success and possessions.

I had that revelation recently when I went back to my home state of West Virginia with a group of 200 young people from Fairfield County, Conn., on a project to help people in Appalachia.

For me, it was like return of the native. The town of Man, where we went with the Appalachia Service Project, was 60 miles from my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia.
My personal adventure began last summer, when my 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, taught me a thing or two about values and the importance of giving back by getting me to take part in the Project, which is a faith-based ministry sponsored by our church, Greenfield Hill Congregational. Because of her interest, we went to rural eastern Tennessee and spent five days repairing trailers and homes.

Last year I went because I wanted to support my daughter, but this year I went because I wanted to help people in my home state. I ended up taking my son, Mason, and my wife, Kristin, because she didn't want to miss being with her family doing something that mattered. It was a lesson in parenting for both of us.

During our week there, I worked with a group of five teenagers on the home of a man named Kenny, a retired disabled coal miner who lived in a trailer with his wife and daughter, a recent high school graduate who was accepted into nursing school.

And even though I told her I'd love to recruit her for Bridgeport Hospital, she had already made up her mind to stay in West Virginia and work at Logan Regional Medical Center.
The young people on my team never worked harder in their lives. The first three days involved strenuous manual labor, building a 60-foot retaining wall because the nearby hill was washing down and threatening to destroy the trailer where they lived.

The five teenagers on my crew literally worked the skin off their hands after chipping rock all day. We even worked on Fourth of July and after we finished, Kenny's family prepared a Fourth of July picnic for us.

The lessons the young people learned went beyond basic principles of construction and home repair. What they saw was a family that had very little materially but who loved being around one another and who were humble and joyful in all their interactions with us.
At one point, we had to connect 6-by-6 timbers and didn't have the proper tools, which Kenny immediately realized - before we did - and so he went into his work shed and tooled a machine piece that solved our problem. I could only marvel at his ingenuity.

Kenny was an honest hardworking man and as nice as the day is long. His life was framed by circumstances that kept him in West Virginia, and I had to wonder what would have happened if he had been born to a privileged family. Things would have been different for him. I suspect with his natural brilliance he could have been dean of Yale Law School if he had been given the opportunity others have.

One lesson the young people learned was that what we make of our lives is often simply a matter of chance. Our economic circumstances don't define us as well as our personal values do.

The young people who went to West Virginia now realize there's more to life than iPhones and Xbox. The act of helping people is something that will influence them forever.
The curious thing is that when you're young and idealistic, you want to change the world -- indeed, you believe you can change the world. However, you don't have to go on the Appalachia Service Project to do that.

I've learned that the inspiration we receive from volunteer work helps bring back the idealism we had before adult cynicism set in from reading too many headlines, seeing too many opinion polls and watching too much television.

I've come back. I believe we can change the world, one person at a time, one act of kindness at a time, and I want to inspire that belief in my children. There's a lot of work to be done out there.