It's a typical night here at Radio City Music Hall - the house is packed as 5,000 attendees pour down aisles, jump out of seats, and crowd the stage. The only difference is that tonight, not one person here bought a ticket.
Each of them did four hours of community service instead.
The campaign is called, "You've Got 2 Give 2 Get," and it rewards volunteering with free concert tickets worth approximately $100 apiece. It's the brainchild of two groups: RockCorps, an organization that introduces volunteerism to teens and young adults; and its sponsor, Boost Mobile, a cellphone service provider that targets youth markets.
The project, which partners with local nonprofits and airs radio spots to build awareness, has encouraged kids to do volunteer work in exchange for concert tickets in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. "We want this to be the Lollapalooza of the decade, but with a community-service twist to it," says Stephen Greene, CEO of RockCorps, referring to the roving rock-concert phenomenon that swept the nation in the 1990s.
In New York City this past summer, more than 5,000 young people collectively volunteered 20,000 hours for 78 projects across the five boroughs. The project culminated in a concert Sept. 24 with hip-hop performers Fat Joe, Slim Thug, and Young Jeezy, among others. It was the campaign's first concert exclusively for local volunteers.
"Volunteering is the last thing that this generation is going to do on their own," says Travis Barker, drummer for Blink 182, which also performed at the Radio City concert, "so if this is what it takes to get them to volunteer, then so be it."
Boost Mobile's ad campaign "Where You At?" aims to get kids age 14 to 24 thinking about their progression into adulthood. It has played a powerful role in the program's outreach. "We became a great conveyor belt to bring RockCorp's message to the masses," says Daryl Butler, Boost Mobile's senior manager of sponsorships and events.
At a Boost Mobile RockCorps cleanup in the Bronx, volunteers moved slowly down the beach, plucking garbage from the shoreline. LaGuardia-bound planes roared above, fishermen quietly cast lines, and three swans paddled in the bay.
"I was so excited to get here, I woke up at 6 a.m.," said Bronx high-schooler Angel Crispin as music blared from his headphones. Angel, who wants to be a police officer, is not new to volunteering. He planned to go to the concert but was here primarily to "do something good for the community."
Alex Rosado, a store clerk whose name tag read, "Phat Al," said the free ticket was not the reason he was participating, either. "I just came along to do this," the Bronx resident said with a shrug. "People out on Long Island keep the beach clean, but you just don't see that in this community."
At a food bank in the Bronx, volunteers packed boxes of supplies to send to Katrina evacuees in Texas. "I was interested in volunteering," said Jeremey Letts, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School. "I don't need the ticket," he added after a pause, "but volunteering looks good on my résumé."
According to Boost Mobile RockCorps, 80 percent of the people who sign up are first-time volunteers, and are likely to volunteer again. That's good news for the nonprofit groups that partnered with them. The Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, which provides after-school programs to 6,500 children in poor areas of New York, was pleased that volunteers helped with gardening and playground renovations. They were even more pleased to recruit 50 new club members, or community leaders, in the process.
"It's a win-win," says Ronald Skeete, director of the clubhouse at Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, who's always seeking volunteers. "The tickets were the draw to get them in, but I don't think that was what kept them here."
Staffers at Boost Mobile RockCorps use a formula to ensure they don't overbook events. They ask for twice as many volunteers to register as they need, because only half will show up. To keep kids from arriving at the end just for the ticket, they only give tickets to volunteers who signed a waiver and received a T-shirt upon arrival. "Sure, people slack," says Lisa Lepson, director of RockCorps's nonprofit services. "But for many, just to get them here is a big deal."
On the night of the concert, the lights dimmed and the show was about to begin. Rasheed Burke and his cousin watched in quiet awe as the hall pulsated with thousands of their peers. "Positive stuff doesn't happen in our neighborhoods," said 16-year-old Rasheed. "Not stuff like this."
Just then a wave of commotion swept through the room. Everyone pointed excitedly at the stage and shouted out names. But it wasn't the performers they were looking at. They were reading a long list of names projected on a screen, the names of people in the audience - their friends, everyone who did community service. They were pointing to each other, and at themselves.