Volunteerism -- a habit developed by pioneering Americans pulling together for the common good -- is distinctly homegrown in the US, it seems, and starts at an early age.
In the Washington, D.C., area alone, literally hundreds of teens as young as 10 or 12 years old give freely of their time. They take on tasks as diverse as conducting tours of historic homes, making and presenting puppet shows, constructing trails in National Parks, helping to arrange art exhibits, and feeding tarantulas and cockroaches at the Insect Zoo.
Savvy self-starters, they will tell you they are volunteering to "keep us off the street." One young man even claims his mother sent him to volunteer at the zoo because, he quips, "she thinks I'll feel at home here."
The National Zoo takes on between 70 and 85 youngsters each summer for one of the city's largest young adult programs. Teens from 13 to 16 years old make puppets with the popular Bob Brown Marionettes. These are used in a 16-minute show that teaches zoo etiquette to tourists.
The shows run 12 times daily, to the delight of visiting children and parents. At other times, the teens wander around giving directions to visitors and answering questions about the animals.
Pat Petrella, a former zoo volunteer who now heads up the teens, gives the key to her program's success: "It works for the public and it works for the kids. They can see that they're actually doing some good by persuading people not to feed the animals."
Volunteers -- teens and otherwise -- often spell the difference between a threadbare program and a full one in these days of bludgeoned budgets. But Mary Karraker, in charge of volunteers at the National Park Service's C&O Canal, says their budget cuts also affect the number of volunteers hired. "We've had to cut way back because we cannot provide adequate supervision. Of course, some of our volunteers require almost no direction."
One in particular, Greg Donaldson, she dubs a "park asset. We're wondering what we'll do without him next year." Greg who enters college this fall, practically grew up in the park where his mother works as a ranger. He put in over 1,000 hours during his first official volunteer year, 1979, doing what Ms. Karraker calls "any grubby, dirty job we threw at him."
Working 20 hours a week during the school year, Greg often brought his homework to the park -- and made the park his homework. "I did a slide show on the C&O through the seasons for a photography course I took," he recalls, "and they showed it here at the park. Also, nearly all my English compositions were about my work."
Using volunteer work as a career springboard is in the thought of more than one teen. "I wanted an art-related job," says Stephanie Watkins, a fine-arts major who worked three jobs this summer, "and the only ones available don't pay.
"But let's face it -- an arts degree and 35 cents will get you a cup of coffee nowadays. You've got to have experience and good recommendations to get a job in my field. By volunteering at this gallery, I've earned both."
Another volunteer, a 14-year-old go-getter named Mark Bretzfelder, has turned his enthusiasm and competence in the zoo's program into an offer for a paid position next summer. Again, it was the recommendation by his supervisor that snared the job.
Such recommendations flow freely from teen supervisors. "Young people are quick learners," says Effie Lawrence, who oversees the work of 12-year-old Raquel Walker and 13- year-old Eric Payne at the historic home of Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas.
Both Eric and Raque give complete house tours, describing Douglas's life and answering complex questions about his past. They learned these facts in "four or five days" of following the tours, they say.
Over at the Insect Zoo in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, training includes workshops with entomologists and special sessions for desginated "tarantula handlers." Volunteers bring out live specimens for the tourists to ogle, including hungry tarantulas and their unwilling prey.
"My favorite bug is the hissing cockroach," says Sharene Thomas, 17. "It's fun to see the audience react." She pets it gently, as parents grimace and children gape in fascination.
Many such jobs are designated specifically as learning experiences. At the National Collection of Fine Arts, for example, a year-round internship program gives young adults a chance to work behind the scenes on the gallery's "relentless" spate of exhibits, and explore a variety of office jobs throughout the museum. Supervisor Teresa Granna also requires research of the interns, asking them to produce a paper on a particular artist or period, using the city's vast art storehouse for research.
The program's few openings fill up quickly, as do most of these volunteer slots. Supervisors has become "very selective" of whom they hire, according to Ms. Karraker. Once in, however, few volunteers are asked to leave. As Kay Weisberg puts it, "these are highly motivated kids. They need instruction, not discipline."
The bulk of these teens find their own jobs, either by reading an ad in the newspaper -- like the 12-year-old tour guide at the Frederick Douglass House -- or seeing a notice posted at the institution itself.
They arrange their own transportation, sometimes riding bikes or buses for miles, or working out complicated car pools. And, at the National Zoo, they are responsible for finding their own replacements on days they cannot show up -- a responsibility Pat Petrella says they meet "beautifully. Teens are reliable, dependable people. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong."
Ms. Petrella and others believe that teens' abilities are often underrated, which causes such programs to fail. As Ms. Karraker put it, "teens have a lot of ideas -- some of them way off-the-wall, some them really worthwhile -- and they should be alloowed to express them. So we include our volunteers in working sessions, and encourage them to brainstorm."
They also include them, as much as possible, in their budget. Many organizations try to defray a little of the volunteer's costs for transportation and meals. Other volunteer "perks" around the city include rescue training workshops, discounts in the Smithsonian's bookstore, and free vegetables from the Douglas garden.
But the real payoffs come in friendships made, facts learned, bugs petted, and trails marked. Experiences like these breed self-respect, a quality as rpecious and homegrown as volunteerism itself.