06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Multiple Ways to Teach Service

On April 23-25, millions of children and youth in more than 100 countries will all participate in making their communities a better place during Global Youth Service Day. GYSD is the largest service event in the world, and it's the only day of service that specifically celebrates how young people, ages 5-25, are addressing critical issues such as health, education, human service, human rights and the environment.

The description sounds so official. Yet the word "service" for my staff, for my colleagues in like-minded organizations, and for me, carries broad and layered definitions.

Service is not just cleaning up a park. It's not just joining AmeriCorps for a year. It's not just incorporating a youth led service-learning project into the Spanish curriculum at school. It's all those things and more.

Service means taking care of your younger siblings because your parents work. It means learning about earthquake victims around the world and informing your classmates about how they can help. It means standing up for someone who gets bullied in your school. It means taking the responsibility and the ownership for problems and solving them.

Service also means researching the needs of your community and working with neighbors to find ways to address those needs. It means collaborating with businesses, schools, community and faith organizations, friends, family, media, and elected officials to create innovative solutions to problems that annoy you or keep you up at night. It means taking time to reflect on the successes and challenges of your actions and understanding how to do better next time.

For Global Youth Service Day on April 23-25, 2010, more than 125 students from an inner-city Detroit school will educate their classmates and families about having a healthy diet and good nutrition. In a neighborhood where no grocery stores exist, the students are creating a musical about proper diet. They are incorporating exercise moves into dance routines and partnering with their school nurse and a music therapist. Is this service? Yes. Is this learning? Definitely. Is this a creative way to for young people to raise awareness about an issue that deeply impacts their generation and their community? Absolutely.

At YSA we see lots of community garden projects leading up to GYSD. What I find powerful is that each garden is addressing a different need. Students in Kalamazoo, Michigan are enhancing a homeless shelter's environment with bright floral colors. Elementary school youth in Modesto, California are gardening to teach peers about healthy eating. And fifth-graders in Duke, North Carolina are creating a garden to help sustain the fading population of lemurs in their community. Because of student investigation and planning, comparable actions are resulting in completely diverse outcomes.

Service happens during the five minutes it takes to help a friend with homework or across the span of a lifetime by devoting oneself to a specific cause. Whether it's an unpaid project with a friend, a requirement for graduation, or a one-year position with a stipend, the positive impact serves as a doorway to a lifetime of engagement.

There are lots of programs that do a fine job of serving children and youth. Yet young people don't always need to be recipients; they want to be asked to serve -- to leverage their ideas, passions, and creativity to solve problems. Just as we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic in elementary school, we also need to provide younger students with opportunities to care and contribute to their communities. Being an active citizen in childhood impacts the level of questions students ask in schools, how they interpret media and how they develop healthy relationships with each other and the world. Engaging with the problems of the world provides youth an opportunity to learn about diverse communities near and far and to empathize with those who are different. As Koffi Annan often reminded us, problems have no passports.

Service, in any and all its forms of solving problems, needs to be a fundamental part of childhood.

Global Youth Service Day is a big event and a big deal. But it's made up of millions of large and small acts, in large and small communities. It's children and youth joining together to chip away at the world's problems in order to better their lives, the lives of their neighbors, and the lives of people they may never even meet.

To post or find a GYSD project in your community, please visit