Youths shine a spotlight on service, peace

Defying the negative ways in which they are often portrayed, a growing number of America's young people are swapping trips to the mall for something unselfish: More than any generation, they're volunteering.

"Youth volunteerism across the nation is at an all-time high.... Sixty to 75 percent of people ages 12 to 24 are engaged in service programs annually," says Steve Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America in Washington. Last Friday, his organization spearheaded National Youth Service Day, one of the largest volunteer efforts in the United States. Some 3 million young people from Denver to Atlanta pulled on work boots to pick up trash, repaint buildings, or pitch in for other community-improvement projects.

In Boston, more than 1,000 elementary and middle school students and 500 volunteers celebrated Service Day with the Peace Games Festival, the culmination of a yearlong program in which students learned about violence prevention and conflict resolution from volunteers. Some of those students organized community-service projects during the year - raising money to free African slaves, cleaning playgrounds, or visiting senior citizens.

Amid face-painting and cooperative games, the Monitor spoke with students about promoting peace in their Boston neighborhoods:

Christian Onuoha is a third-grade student at Mission Grammar School. He bounces up and down eagerly in his "I am a peacemaker" T-shirt, grinning ear to ear. He watches students playing with a giant parachute and scribbling peace signs on a banner.

"I like volunteering. I helped clean a park near my house [in Roxbury]. Now we have swings and slides in our park.

I helped [with other classmates] to raise money for antislavery. We raised $300 to stop slavery in Africa. Peace Games is nice because they teach us to deal with problems in a nonviolent manner. If someone ever tried to fight me, I'd walk away, because if I got into a fight, I'd get into trouble and he would, too. We could be doing better things."

Aja Trouit is a freshman at West Roxbury High School and lives in Dorchester. She volunteers for Peace Games.

"There was violence in my neighborhood. My brother - he was shot in a drive-by. He was just walking home and they shot the wrong person. He was OK later.... The police caught the gang. I was 8 and he was 15 or 16.

That's one reason I want to volunteer. I feel like I can make a difference. I want to keep helping through high school and college. I want to be a good role model.... I helped clean up the Mattahunt Elementary School playground and ... painted a hop scotch and map of the world. I like working with kids, helping out at Mattahunt two hours a week.... It's my old elementary school."

Robina Bhasin is a freshman at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who helped teach Peace Games curriculum once a week to fifth-graders. She's especially interested in social-justice issues.

"I grew up in Long Island. I wasn't exposed to the world that they've lived in. Now I see more of the world through their point of view. I've been very fortunate, but there is so much injustice.... I want to do something to help out and make a difference.

Fighting seems to be a large part of what they are respected for. We teach them how not to resolve problems like that,... to tell others how you feel instead of just hitting them. I like the idea of working with kids, teaching them about cooperation and collaboration.... It makes a difference for the next generations."

Natali Rivera is in 9th grade at Matignon High School in Cambridge, Mass. She's a Peace Games volunteer and also volunteers for TAG, a summer day camp for Latino children. She wants to study social work in college.

"I grew up in Jamaica Plain and saw a lot of violence. I didn't have any programs around my school. There were times when we didn't know who we should be friends with. We didn't have an example set for us. Now, I want to help kids out,... give them a role model. We're teenagers, and they look up to us.

There was one [13-year-old] kid I worked with in TAG, he was on the streets constantly getting into trouble. He would hang out with me at TAG. At the end of the month, he changed his style. He hung out with a different group."

Porshia Haygood is in seventh grade at Blessed Sacrament in Jamaica Plain. She lives in Hyde Park. Through her school, she participates in a volunteer program that visits senior citizens.

"I've been working with older people. We talk about our families. We play games and associate. They think we're intelligent and funny. One senior I work with is very creative, outspoken; he's a good friend.

I was 12 when I first started [volunteering] ... with little kids. I like to keep charge of them and do activities with them. I do it to have fun. Attending Peace Games is fun. I'm learning ... that we don't need violence. There's so much violence and there shouldn't be.... We should all just come together as one."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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