The awe resonates in Antonietta Barbieri's voice when she speaks of her experience volunteering at a local nursing home.
"You could see it in their eyes, even if they didn't say anything." says the Rariton, N.J., resident. "There was such deep appreciation. A little act of kindness on our part, a little show of interest, was enough to make such a difference in their lives."
Like many young people, Ms. Barbieri, a college senior, began volunteering in high school and shows no sign of slacking. To hear her speak of her work and feel the depth of its meaning to her is to understand why she typifies a new wave of volunteerism in America today: committed, realistic, and adaptable.
"The idea has really caught on with my friends," she says. "I think it's a trend. You hear so many negative things about people my age, but what I see are people who are dedicated."
Barbieri's spirit is shared by millions of Americans of all ages carrying on a tradition as old as the country. Settlers helped their neighbors with "barn raising" and many other needs, and charities of virtually every description have been part of American social history through times of war and peace.
Today, volunteers are everywhere: in front of supermarkets, where citizens collect for causes; in hospitals; soup kitchens; homeless shelters; and innumerable other places. And they are being celebrated this week during National Volunteer Week, a project overseen by the Points of Light Foundation in Washington. Spokeswoman Barbara Lohman says the purpose is to focus attention on the role of volunteering in American life and to help local groups gain proper recognition.
Americans are pitching in with the dedication that has always characterized their efforts, experts say. But demographics, forms of volunteering, and motivation are shifting. In addition, volunteers are facing tougher economic conditions and demands on their time as well as changing societal attitudes.
In some ways, this new framework is less conducive, many say, to the commitment traditionally required by volunteering. One result is that fewer Americans are donating time, according to one study of volunteerism and giving. Conducted by the Gallup Organization for the Independent Sector, a coalition of voluntary groups with its national office in Metaire, La., the 1994 study (the most recent figures available) shows volunteering declining from 54 percent in 1989 to 48 percent in 1994.
But the study offers numbers that are still impressive. Nearly 90 million adults volunteered during 1993, for example, contributing an average of 4.2 hours a week. That's 19.5 billion hours - the equivalent of 8.8 million full-time employees, representing a dollar value of some $182 billion.
The study, as well as specialists, note a number of other key developments in volunteerism:
An increase in participation by people 75 years old and older: 37 percent say they volunteer, up from 27 percent in 1990.
A tendency for people to pick and chose the time and place of volunteering, rather than pledge regular service over a long period.
In response to today's time demand on people, a more highly organized approach by many volunteer organizations.
A shift in reasons many people give for volunteering, with fewer likely to cite altruistic reasons like "helping other human brings."
One area where volunteerism is definitely growing is on college campuses. "I've noticed that trend for several years now," says Tom Vaubel, associate dean of students at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisc. "Volunteerism of this kind has always been going on but no one keeps track of it."
A program called the Community Service Coalition is a focal point for student volunteers at the Ripon campus. "We work with Habitat for Humanity, tutor in elementary and high schools, do Red Cross work, and a whole range of activities," he says. "Many students are getting introduced to volunteering early."
Young people "are indeed getting involved at an earlier age," agrees Denny Barnett, volunteer resource coordinator for Volunteers of America, one of the oldest and largest human-services agencies in the United States. "Our survey doesn't really get at the college component of volunteering."
He cites groups like the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, which he describes as "a bunch of [Virginia] universities banded together to reach out and increase the volunteerism on their campuses and coordination among campuses."
Activities like that, Mr. Barnett says, "have stepped forward" to fill some of the gaps.
Barbieri, for instance, is now an active volunteer at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., where she helps regularly with the Special Olympics and other causes. She's also a work-study staffer for John Prescott, director of Seton Hall's Division of Volunteer Efforts program. "She's terrific," Mr. Prescott says.
"When you first start volunteering," Barbieri says, "you see it as a community-service project. You really don't understand how it affects you until you sit down and think about it and realize 'I helped someone today.'"
Barbieri says that when she was going to nursing homes while in high school, she and her friends tried to develop friendships with the residents. At the beginning of the year, she and her co-volunteers would hold brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas to brighten their lives. On Valentine's Day, they made personal Valentine cards for the people whom each volunteer had gotten to know.
"Some were huge!" Barbieri laughs. "Other people did poems. One of the girls baked heart-shaped cookies. We spent the day doing this, and had a little party with the residents."
But many observers are concerned that when individuals like Barbieri and her friends enter the work force, their volunteer activities will drop off.
"We found if people feel they aren't going to have enough money [for their needs] for two or three months ahead, they'll be less likely to go out and volunteer," says Aaron Heffron, the assistant director of research of Independent Sector. "In the slowdown in the early '90s, for instance, we experienced a drop in both volunteering and charitable giving."
People are patching together three or more part-time jobs and it clearly leaves less time and energy to volunteer, says Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of sociology and political ethics at the University of Chicago.
"With the absorption of women into the workforce, everyone has to work full time and the community doesn't get taken care of properly," she says. The volunteer community work once done by women has never been properly recognized as the vital contribution to the community that it was, she maintains. And, she adds, it is one that is hard to replace. "It was civil work in the PTA, the church, the precincts of political parties, in the community," she explains.
"They used to say the average volunteer was a 40-year-old housewife from Dayton, Ohio. That traditional volunteer is no longer around," Barnett says.
One result, he says, is that people are looking for more short-term involvement, "like a painting project or helping take children to the zoo - something finite. My sense is that it's the same amount of time, only broken up a little more."
That calls for more flexibility on the part of volunteer-seekers, he says. "If people who come in every other Thursday to do a mailing for me," he observes, "there's no reason they need to come into my office. I could take it to their home. "
Has America, as a result of such changes, lost its sense of community? The charge was made in a much-discussed essay by Robert Putnam, a professor of government and international affairs at Harvard University called "Bowling Alone." Published last year in the Journal of Democracy, the article noted that more Americans are bowling than ever, but fewer join bowling leagues. He used the fact as a metaphor for a decreasing willingness of people to connect with their neighbors and community.
It's the price the United States is paying, many specialists say, for a mobile society chasing jobs. "Communities are places you leave," claims Professor Elshtain.
"Part of the American story is to take bright young people out of their communities and send them some place else. If you're not sure you're going to be in this place a few years from now, why spend time volunteering at school, say? It isn't your place. You're a mobile person."
An undue stress on individualism is another challenge to community service, Elshtain claims. "For so long we felt we could have good communities and also ardent individualism. Now we realize it takes a lot of [collaborative] effort to sustain institutions and communities. It takes hands-on stuff."
It takes volunteers, and one group that may help fill the gap - in addition to the growing numbers of college-age volunteers - are older people. When the baby-boom generation hits retirement, many volunteer groups hope for an influx of recruits. "These are the ones who will fill a large segment of our volunteer force in years ahead," Heffron says.
But even with this group, it helps to ask. "The biggest thing about volunteering is a simple premise: People will volunteer if you ask them to," he says. The Independent Sector survey, in fact, shows that people are more than twice as likely to volunteer if asked than if not asked. "You need volunteers to get volunteers," Mr. Heffron explains. "Sometimes that basic fact is overlooked, but it's getting better."
And the kind of help being volunteered is not always stereotypical soup-kitchen serving or elderly care. It can be something as unexpected as poetry.
When homeless men seek shelter in the Volunteers of America's outreach and reception center in Brooklyn, N.Y., for instance, one of the people they'll meet is a poetry teacher. Erin Washington, a young African-American woman, holds sessions for a group ranging widely in ages, races, and backgrounds.
"I bring in books by authors and and poets the men have asked for," she says. Edgar Allen Poe is a favorite, and so is Langston Hughes, especially, she says, among African-American visitors.
Poetry Ms. Washington finds, "helps them establish connections to the feelings of other people. "It makes them feel they're part of the world," she notes.
Washington downplays any dreamily idealistic motives for her work. She finds it helps her as much as it does the homeless. Their dependence on her develops her own sense of reliability.
"Most people who do volunteering used to be more willing to attach the word 'altruism' than they are now," says Jane Piliavin, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There's this climate that altruism is irrational or phony."
But Professor Piliavin also feels the numbers of volunteers are beginning to come back and cautions against putting too much stock in reports like the Independent Sector survey.
"We don't have much data," she says. "Making a lot out of recent trends doesn't make a lot of sense. Volunteerism will always be a response to need."
Young people like Barbieri make that easy to believe. "I can say volunteering has helped me grow as a person, a human being," she says. "It puts things in perspective, what the needs are and how the world works - or should work."
Does she expect to continue volunteering as she leaves college and launches a career?
"Oh definitely!" she laughs. "In fact, after graduation I'll be continuing with the Special Olympics and other projects. I don't ever expect to stop."