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.
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.
``It's been a sort of intellectual journey and we've come around to thinking that really the way to go is a decentralized approach - national service from the grass roots up,'' says Alan Khazei, president of City Year.
``What we're doing with this is saying, `Help yourself while helping others,''' Mr. Khazei says. ``Often we don't challenge our young people. This generation has been criticized as the `me generation.' Our bias is that it's really a lack of leadership on the part of people across the country: not asking enough of young people.''
``The only thing we're lacking is the challenge to serve,'' says Donald Eberly, a leading advocate of national service. ``If young people were called to serve, they would respond, and they do.''
In fact, more than 150 young people applied for the 50 spots in City Year's summer program. Organizers hope to turn City Year into a year-round program starting next year.
This program is uniquely funded through private corporations that sponsor a team of 10 young people. Bain & Co., Bank of Boston, Equitable Financial Services, and General Cinema each donated $25,000 to City Year to sponsor a team. The fifth team, called the ``Citizens Team,'' was made possible through contributions of as little as $15 from more than 1,000 individuals.
City Year's founders are pushing the idea of partnership by the public and private sectors. Neil Silverston, director of finance and administration, talks of ``public-service entrepreneurship.''
The concept of voluntary national service has strong public support. A Gallup poll reported in January that 83 percent of the public favor voluntary national service, 11 percent oppose it, and 6 percent have no opinion. Eighty-seven percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds questioned supported the concept.
Currently some 450 universities and 3,000 high schools offer community service programs. The leaders of City Year are promoting a year of national service as a ``rite of passage'' for young people.
``The idea of a voluntary system is to create an institution,'' says Michael Brown. ``The idea of spending a year of service full-time in between high school and college or in between high school and work is a new norm that we'd like to see.''
But some participants in the summer program are uncertain this will happen.
``I'm kind of worried about what City Year will turn into,'' one participant says. ``If it was a summer program, you might get a broader range of people. More people are able to take off a summer.''
``I think it would be nice if they could do it by semester - usually people take semesters off to find themselves,'' another comments.
City Year's leaders are confident that they can establish a year-round corps. ``People in general underestimate the power of public service,'' says Khazei. ``What City Year has said to us is that the spirit of public service really is alive and well across the board.''