Everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. --the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
If everybody can serve, what makes people take the first step? "It's fun, and it's better than watching TV," says Michael Cruz, 17, a 10th-grader at Grace Dodge High School in the South Bronx. At an age when most kids are more interested in sleeping late and hanging out, Michael and more than 1,000 other middle and high schoolers in 16 cities across the country are getting up early on Saturday mornings for a full day of community service in the City Year Young Heroes program.
Each Saturday from January to June, teams of mostly middle school students spend the morning learning about an important social issue and exploring opportunities for citizen activism. In the afternoon they perform a service project and reflect on solutions for positive change. Issues they tackle include hunger and homelessness, ageism, HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, racism and personal conflict.
City Year, founded in 1988, is best known for its program for 17-to-24-year-olds who volunteer for a full year of service in schools in underserved communities. The Young Heroes component was started in 1995 when Liana Gonzalez, a precocious 13-year-old, asked why she couldn't volunteer in her Boston neighborhood like the older City Year corps members. The youth program has recently gone national thanks to a major investment by Bank of America.
Young Heroes is based on the idea that no one is too young to make a positive difference in the world around him or her, and that service, if begun early, can become a life-long commitment. "Middle school is a crucial time in life. You are making a lot of decisions about what kind of person you are going to be," says Vera Garrity, 24, a Young Heroes and City Year alumna now in her second year at the University of Virginia Law School. "After being in City Year, no matter what I do, I will always do service," says Garrity, who is planning a career in public-interest law. "After seeing people who are so committed and who are sacrificing so much or struggling so hard, it is impossible not to think about how you can help. It just becomes part of you."
On a recent Saturday morning in the Bronx, where there are more people living with HIV/AIDS than in most states, a team of about 15 Young Heroes gathered in a circle, trading colored candies with one another. Each student started with 10 colored candies and directions on whether they could trade freely or on a restricted basis. But one student had only green candies, which, unknown to the group, symbolized HIV. After about 10 minutes of talking and joking, the group leader called the team to order, directed the students to count their colored candies and revealed what the green ones represented. The kids were shocked to discover how many of them ended up with a green candy. They then discussed facts and myths surrounding AIDS, issues of prevention, testing, transmission, safe sex and tolerance. But the project didn't end with the classroom component. That afternoon some of the students visited an AIDS clinic, while others stuffed and decorated bags for delivery to homebound AIDS patients.
Doing good can become a habit. Cruz, a high school swimmer who works part-time at the Bronx Zoo, has been in the Young Heroes program for three years. He joined in middle school and despite his busy schedule asked to continue as a Young Hero until City Year gets its planned high school program, City Heroes, under way. He says his favorite service day so far has been visiting a local nursing home, where he played cards with the elderly residents, listened to their stories and even gave a few of them manicures.
City Year CEO and co-founder Michael Brown calls Young Heroes "an adventure in idealism" that begins "a continuum of service" and says he hopes that one day national service will become a standard part of growing up in the U.S. "We need to spark a sense of civic identity in young people and turn them on to being citizens," he says. "Our culture encourages them to become materialistic and self-involved, but they are really looking for meaning, adventure and personal power. All the research shows that students who get engaged at a young age are more likely to volunteer, to vote and to join a community group or civic organization later in life. We all understand the benefits of being on a sports team. Kids need a structured experience, and they want to be with their peers. Young Heroes is like being on a community-service team."