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Grass-roots community service. Young people work on local projects in City Year program

By Laurel ShaperStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 1988


AT 8 a.m. 50 young people, ranging in age from 17 to 21, start their working day with calisthenics on the Boston Common. The early morning foot traffic slows to gawk and wonder, and the homeless look on sleepy-eyed from the park benches they have made beds for the night. After morning exercises, the group separates into five teams of 10 people for a day of service to the community.

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One team is training disabled children for a Special Olympics they will organize and run later in the summer. Another group salvages and sorts food for the homeless. Some individuals assist the elderly, and others transform vacant lots in poor neighborhoods into community play areas or refurbish old playgrounds. Each team will complete at least one human service project and one physical labor project by the end of the eight-week program.

``You can really see the difference at the end of every day,'' says Karin Olliver, a student from Boston Latin High School.

This is City Year - the latest in a growing network of conservation and service corps promoting national youth service at the grass-roots level.

With the exception of the California Conservation Corps, which was founded by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, most programs are less than five years old.

City Year's summer pilot program in Boston is giving young people opportunities to help combat such urban problems as blight, homelessness, and illiteracy. In return for their work, they earn $60 a week and at summer's end they have the option of receiving a $1,000 scholarship or taking a $600 cash bonus.

``The feeling that you're doing things that otherwise really would not get done is great,'' says Kim Barrett, a student at Boston University. ``We know that if we weren't here, the Special Olympics would not have happened for these kids.''

The City Year corps is made up of students representing 35 high schools and several colleges. Twenty-five neighborhoods and towns in the Boston area are represented, along with a variety of races, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels.

``We're bringing kids together who otherwise would never have met. Most of what their summer is going to be about is learning from each other,'' says Michael Brown, a graduate of Harvard Law School and one of City Year's founders.

``Enjoying our differences, we've learned about our similarities,'' says Stacey Walsh, a City Year participant from Wellesley, Mass.

``For many years people have been advocating national service, and in reality next to nothing has been done. The Peace Corps and VISTA were established, but never anything of very substantial size. So it was a little bit like speaking into the wind on this,'' says Roger Landrum, co-director of Youth Service America, an organization promoting state and local youth service organizations across the country.

A grass-roots or ``bottom up'' approach to national service is gaining popularity. More than 50 year-round and summer conservation and service corps programs are in operation in the United States today, according to the Human Environment Center in Washington, D.C., an information network for the national corps community. The center estimates that nearly 50,000 young people are involved in these programs.