Since 1988, Youth Service America has encouraged millions of American kids, ages 5-25, to participate in service projects at the same time every April. National Youth Service Day, now called Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), is the only event that recognizes and celebrates the contributions that young people make to their communities 365 days of the year. In the beginning, participants came from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands, and Washington, DC.
During a trip I took to Russia in 1998, a 15 year old boy named Evgeny raised his hand and asked me if there was any reason why the kids in the Russian Federation couldn’t join their peers in the United States in celebrating National Youth Service Day. I was dumbstruck by the brilliance and simplicity of his idea. Of course his question made sense, given that young people relate best to other young people, no matter where they live.
With the help of Evgeny’s peers across Russia, and other organizations we recruited with partners such as the Inter-American Development Bank, we launched the first Global Youth Service Day in 2000 with 27 participating countries. Within a couple of years, we quickly surpassed participation by kids in more than 100 countries on six continents.
A combination of technologies such as Internet, email, and social networking helped expansion, combined with a slew of disasters, such as 9/11; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Pakistan Earthquake; the Chinese Earthquake; Darfur; Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and the Asian Tsunami, which drove more and more young people into service and into GYSD. Lots of publicity about diseases such as malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis woke up a generation of kids to the sufferings of their peers around the planet. Passion for animals, concern for the environment, and service-learning classes on subjects such as the links between climate change and industrialization created new motivation for young people to get involved and take action.
On April 15-17, 2011 (over three days to accommodate teachers, weekend programs, and our Jewish colleagues) millions of kids around the world will take the time to show off their energy, commitment, idealism, and creativity in solving the world’s most difficult problems around health, education, human service, human rights, and the environment.
Elementary school children in Turkey will create a flash mob demonstration dressed as water droplets to bring attention to the world’s scarcity of water. In Ecuador, youth will remove invasive plants in favor of native trees and build dry bathrooms throughout community parks, all which assist in compositing and fertilization. Atlanta, Georgia youth have worked all semester with local, green-friendly professionals and are constructing a new playground, sports fields and park to replace the school’s decimated grounds.
With half the world’s population under 25 years old, we must make room in our hearts and minds for the contributions of youth. Too often, they are recipients of our high-minded programs and educational systems, which often only create passivity and boredom in young people. We need to have them on the giving end of the power stick, as actors in delivering service to world, not receiving it.
Think recycling. Think littering. Think Egypt. Youth are not hope of tomorrow, nor some distant leaders of the future. They are actively leading and changing the world today. Come join them on Global Youth Service Day 2011.
*Steve Culbertson is President and CEO of Youth Service America, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve communities by increasing the number and the diversity of young people, ages 5-25, serving in substantive roles. You may follow him at twitter.com/Culbs. Information on Global Youth Service Day may be found at YSA.org.