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These Kids Made a Difference!

Share Make a Difference Day, October 28, is a great time to get students thinking about ways they might contribute to their community. To help, a terrific new book that shares the real-life experiences of 20 teen volunteers will inspire your students to come up with their own volunteer activities!

My advice to other kids is that you're going to get so much more out of seeing someone's life change, or someone just smiling because you did something for them, than watching television or sitting at home. The way I think about it is that when you change someone's life, that's amazing in and of itself.

     -- as told to Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., in Catch the Spirit: Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference

Book Cover Image In Catch the Spirit: Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference (Franklin Watts), author Susan K. Perry presents, in students' own words, the stories of 20 exceptional young people. Those students come from all over the United States and from all walks of life. However, they have one thing in common: the desire, strength, and stamina to make a difference.

Perry, a social psychologist and writer, chose the 20 children interviewed from hundreds of winners of the state-level Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Since 1995, Prudential, in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has sponsored the awards program to recognize young people in grades 5 to 12 for outstanding community service.

The projects that Perry has highlighted are as diverse as the students' backgrounds. In Minnesota, a high school boy organized a disaster relief project for a neighboring town devastated by tornados. A nine-year-old Pennsylvania boy raised more than $18,000 -- in pennies! -- for charity. A 16-year-old girl combined her love of softball with a desire to help others by creating a softball league for youngsters with special needs.

Similarities among the projects are evident from the student interviews. For example, many of the projects took much longer to accomplish than the youngsters had anticipated. A young Ohio girl, inspired by her late grandmother's generosity, was moved to raise money to help poor people, but it took more than a year and dozens of letters before money began trickling in.

In many cases, the civic-minded youngsters were surprised by a less-than-enthusiastic reception. A girl who spent nearly all her spare time tending to orphaned or injured wild animals said:

One of the lessons I've learned from all this is that sometimes people don't do what they say they'll do. Since I've been involved with this group, I've worked with some adults who act very childishly. Sometimes people work with the animals just so they can tell people they do it, to make themselves look better. I've learned as much about human nature as about animal nature.

Another common denominator appears to be the kids' focus on a doable goal rather than something large and complicated. According to one boy who started a pen pal program as a way of putting in touch with one another people with different racial backgrounds:

People have been dealing with the idea of racism for a long time, and I felt like, obviously I didn't eliminate racism and I never planned to, but the fact is that for 20,000-plus people, I at least did something. It's a really good thing to know you've been doing what you should do and you haven't just been complaining, which is easy to do.

One observation worth mentioning is that most of the youths acknowledged the ingenuity and (often unexpected) hard work required of them but downplayed their own contributions and denied any special personal attributes that would single them out from their peers. According to one boy, who spearheaded a project that takes leftover school cafeteria food -- food that would ordinarily be discarded -- and distributes it among those in need:

I don't really see myself as different from other kids in my school or anywhere. I saw something I wanted, and I went for it. I'm sure if one of my friends wanted an A in one of his classes, he'd study his butt off for it. If someone wanted to get a bike, he'd scrimp and save all he could. It's just something I wanted, and I went for it.

Each of the students' stories is, in its own way, inspiring. "I can't forget the girl who helped rehabilitate baby birds and who had to feed baby hummingbirds every 15 minutes!" Perry told Education World. "That's commitment and caring to the max.

"The other stories that stand out in my mind are the ones where a teen spent zillions of hours setting up some program or raising funds for some disease and then spoke only of how blessed he or she was to be able to help others and see their smiles of gratitude. Those are memories those teens will carry with them all their lives, and I suspect I will remember them always too."

So what exactly is it about these particular teens that enabled them to accomplish so much?

"I found that the teens who were most successful shared one trait that I believe is shared by almost everyone who is successful in any field: persistence," Perry said. "Of course, to persist through many challenges means they all have a certain belief in themselves, a deep-down certainty that they can achieve what they set out to do. To develop that belief, you have to really want something, and these teens want to change the world."

Although not intended as a how-to book on volunteering, the appendices do contain much valuable information for kids looking for a positive community service experience. Included are tips for getting started and thumbnail descriptions of more than 200 additional projects by other Prudential Spirit of the Community Award winners as well as organizations, Internet sites, and books that can serve as valuable resources.

When asked how she thinks schools can help students become involved in community service, Perry told Education World, "I would suggest that students be given many choices of how and where to volunteer, so they can find something that suits them individually."

Perry added that "in addition, each student needs a helpful, supportive adult to discuss the obstacles that are naturally encountered, so that they don't become discouraged and give up. Those who volunteer derive so much gratification and so much pleasure and fun from helping others, it's astonishing. Beyond that, they develop leadership skills, grow their self-esteem and confidence, and often learn a lot of practical stuff about how the world works and how you get things done."

If you are interested in reading more about Perry's books and other projects, go to her Web site, Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

The book highlighted this week is available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • Catch the Spirit: Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference, written by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is published by Franklin Watts, a division of Grolier Publishing, 90 Sherman Turnpike, Danbury, CT 06816.

Lauren P. Gattilia
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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