Americans grab paintbrushes as volunteerism surges

In Philadelphia, 10,000 people take to the street for servicework in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

For an increasing number of Americans, Martin Luther King Day is not a time of relaxation but a day to grab a broom or swab the floor of a cafeteria.

More than 10,000 people in Philadelphia alone volunteered to paint, sweep, or repair schools and streets around the area yesterday. Smaller groups in several cities - from Chicago to Charlotte, N.C., to San Diego - also used the holiday to clean up their neighborhoods.

The day of service is a testament to the spirit of Dr. King's legacy, but it also bears witness to something more. Polls show that volunteerism year-round is on the rise, as corporations and young people become more engaged in their communities. Indeed, the growth of the Philadelphia Day of Service - and others like it - is emblematic of an increased commitment to service nationwide.

"There has been more attention focused on volunteerism through events like the King Day of Service or the President's Summit on Volunteerism," says Nora Silver, director of The Volunteerism Project, a San Francisco-based initiative designed to strengthen and diversify public service.

When US Sen. Harris Wofford began the Philadelphia Day of Service in 1994, only about 1,000 turned out. Since then, the numbers have swelled, from 7,000 in 1997 to the anticipated 10,000 this year, making it the biggest Martin Luther King Day volunteer project in the United States.

It's a "commentary about volunteering in general," says Todd Bernstein, director of the Philadelphia Day of Service. "It's also a very strong statement about the King holiday and the shift toward finding meaningful ways to celebrate his life of action and helping others."

But the new face of volunteerism includes much more than people donating their time during a day off. "Corporations are [also] becoming increasingly involved, encouraging employees to participate in hands-on work, rather than simple gift-giving." says Ms. Silver. Schools, too, have begun "concentrating on service as a way to educate kids with experiential learning," she notes.

This service profile marks a departure from the old stereotype of the volunteer - the suburban housewife who had a weekly assignment in a local hospitals, or with school PTAs or libraries. Not only has the face of volunteerism shifted, there's also been a shift in the type of volunteer assignments people are seeking.

The most recent statistics, compiled in 1996 by the Gallup Organization, reported that 48.8 percent of the population was involved in volunteer activities for approximately 4.2 hours a week. "Many more people are wanting short-term volunteer opportunities," says Silver. "Businesses, cultural groups, and families seek a way of giving that is both short-term and [has an] impact."

As a result, there are now a number of organizations across the country that help prospective volunteers pinpoint areas where they can be most effective. At the end of the last decade, New York and Washington both had Cares organizations, which serve as liaison between volunteers and service opportunities. Now, there are 27 such organizations nationwide, accounting for the placement of about 100,000 volunteers.

"Groups like ours allow for more diversification in volunteer opportunities," says Lissa Hilsee, executive director of Philadelphia Cares.

Marguerite Redwine, who runs the Volunteer and Information Agency, an agency based in New Orleans that matches volunteers with projects, agrees. "We're able to match individual volunteers or corporations who might want 30 employees to participate in a weekend event to a volunteer assignment that is suited to their talent and schedule," she says.

FOR many, the most encouraging aspect of volunteerism today is the participation of young people. "Kids respond to volunteer opportunities," say Mr. Bernstein. "When they're given the chance to do something selfless for others and they receive acknowledgement for it, that's an empowering mechanism that promotes self-esteem and and leadership."

He also notes that children are never too young to become involved. "We have projects in this year's Day of Service that attract kids as young as 6."

One organization, Do Something, is a national school-based organization founded jointly by actor Andrew Shue, formerly of "Melrose Place," and Martin Luther King III. Its goal is to inspire and mobilize young people to take action that will help strengthen their communities.

It uses the King holiday as a kick-off for its "Kindness and Justice Challenge" - a two-week initiative, beginning on Martin Luther King Day, which encourages children to perform acts of kindness in their communities and involves teachers and students in discussions of these values. The various Kindness and Justice acts completed are cited on a Web site, and schools are challenged to compete with one another for the most good deeds. Last year, students from more than 14,000 schools participated. This year, more than 1.7 million students will be involved, according to program spokesman Rafe Bemporad.

"Students will receive recognition for the work they do," he says. "We believe if students can commit to two weeks of service, they can commit to a month. That becomes a year, then a year becomes a lifetime."

Bernstein, too, views the King Day of Service as a springboard to a year-round movement. "This really has become a 365-day-a-year project."

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