When giving back gives back even more

There's a reason volunteering is increasing in America: Altruism always offers rewards.

When 18-year-old Kyle begrudgingly began to volunteer at the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Ore., last January, I felt sorry for him. For years, I'd been feeding and caring for injured birds of prey at this nonprofit in the woods, hoping to impress a handsome covolunteer named Jonathan. But Kyle, mandated by his high school, had to shoehorn 100 hours of community service into a schedule already crammed with Advanced Placement courses and lacrosse practice.

"Do I have to clean owl cages again?" he'd grumble.

Midway through his four-hour shift, he'd wander around the medical clinic and stare out the window, oblivious to the ethereal white barn owl recuperating from head trauma in one enclosure, the magnificent red-tailed hawk recovering from a broken wing in another. "I've got a ton of calculus homework. Can I leave early?"

If he reached beyond himself, it was only to grab his digital camera and shoot random photos in apparent boredom. Jonathan and I, working a regular Thursday evening shift with Kyle, regarded his lack of enthusiasm with frustration. After all, American teens are volunteering in record numbers.

A civic generation – or required giving?

A new report by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) notes that 28 percent of older teens volunteer now, compared with just 13 percent in 1989. "If supported properly," CNCS director of research Robert Grimm says, "we may be on the cusp of a new civic generation."

Maybe so, but not all of these young civilians relish the idea of working without pay. "It's enforced labor," says the teenage son of one of my friends. "Mandatory community service is just one more hoop seniors have to jump through before college."

Indeed, Mr. Grimm notes that the rise in altruism can be partially attributed to educational programs that combine classroom studies with community work.

I graduated from high school in 1988. Back then, students didn't have to volunteer. Still, we spent countless hours on yearbook production and play rehearsal, and volunteering at retirement homes and animal shelters.

True, we did it mostly to pad university applications. But after college acceptances in February, most of us continued to volunteer. We'd learned to offer up our time and energy for the joy of helping others.

With a master's degree and no children, I've volunteered somewhere, to help someone, consistently for two decades. Last year, I received the ultimate accolade for community service – Jonathan asked me to marry him.

We wed at the Cascades Raptor Center last March. And we invited Kyle. Surprisingly, he gave up his Saturday evening to attend the ceremony, and shyly handed me a gift. He'd drawn and framed a picture of me with an owl. "I sketched it from a picture I took of you and the owl with my digital camera," he said.

"It's wonderful," I exclaimed. "Have you done others?"

"A few," he replied. "I could bring them to our next shift."

I nodded. "I'd like that."

Kyle's transformation

After that, Kyle approached his Thursday night shift with new energy. He cleaned cages and fed injured birds diligently, intent on making time to sketch the birds. "I'm making a coloring book for the Raptor Center's annual open house," he explained. "There's another volunteer here who's my age. She draws, too. Maybe we could collaborate."

Sometimes, all that's needed to make volunteers feel invested in their work is a recognition of their particular skills and how these talents might be of use to an organization.

Kyle's interest in owls, hawks, and falcons deepened during the summer as he studied the birds up close. He became particularly close to an injured raven named Echo. "Hello, Echo," he'd say as he walked in. The raven chortled in greeting and stretched out her neck to accept the squirming mealworm Kyle offered.

It came as no surprise that a skillful line drawing of Echo appeared in his coloring book, nor that he shed tears the day Echo was moved to a wildlife center in California.

A new volunteer, a retired Army man in his 60s, approached Jonathan and me at the center one afternoon. "Your son is a splendid fellow," he said.

We burst out laughing. "He's not our son," I said.

Still, in December, I felt a mother's pride for him. He returned from college on winter break and offered to help clean cages at the center. "I figured you all could use a hand," he said. "And hey, I was just wondering if that artist-girl is still around? I've got some new sketches to show her."

Then, Kyle and I exchanged a conspiratorial smile. We shared the secret that is, perhaps, the most significant indicator of the increase in volunteering. Altruism always offers rewards.

Melissa Hart teaches English and history at Laurel Springs High School, and journalism at the University of Oregon.

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