He was 16-years-old when he told me, "I've been volunteering since I was six-months-old and now I drive myself." As a baby, his mother would take him to nursing homes so the residents could hold him. Now as a teenager, he drives himself to visit his older friends filling a shared evening with laughter and stories.
Today, August 12th, is International Youth Day, which is observed by the United Nations and its member countries to provide a platform to examine and bring attention to the issues and opportunities young people face around the globe. Youth participation in civic life ranks high among the markers of success identified by the UN but the US has made little progress in this area.
That needs to change. DoSomething.org found that 93percent of teenagers reported they would like to volunteer. Yet, in 2012, only 27.4 percent did so - about the same rate as people over the age of 65. This means over 70 percent of our younger and older community member - our bookend generations - most likely are not engaged in helping to make neighborhoods, towns, and cities better places to live. That lack of participation is a national deficit we can ill afford.
In her book Composing a Further Life, Mary Catherine Bateson wrote "The larger society has the responsibility to offer not handouts but the context that makes participation possible."
So what can we do to make participation not just possible for all generations, but expected? As the Jackson Five said many years ago, it's as simple as ABC.
A-Ask. The number one reason people don't volunteer is because they aren't asked. And younger and older individuals are asked even less because they are often thought of as too old or too young to contribute. Neither characterization is true. Instead of dismissing entire populations, let's make asking and saying yes easy.
Working with MetLife Foundation, Generations United found one way to do this is through youth-led jump start grants. These small grants enable young entrepreneurs to develop volunteer projects working with, or on behalf of, older adults. The results have been impressive. A teenager reported "One thing I learned through this project is to respect your community and your history. For all of the retired teachers we worked with, most had lived here for a while, and even though they are done working and could leave if they wanted to, they did not. I learned through their stories that your community has a way of shaping you and your history, and that your community never leaves you."
B-Benefit. We need to better convey the benefits of participating in community service. Younger and older people are better off when they feel connected to a purpose, their community, and each other. Older adults who volunteer with younger generations take better care of themselves, have more friends, and report feeling more optimistic. Younger people are enriched when they have other caring adults in their lives, and they develop skills that will help them for decades to come. Communities that engage all ages have a stronger social fabric, retain their citizens, and are seen as good places to grow up and grow old.
C-Collaborate. Aging- and youth-focused organizations and services tend to have a narrow view and seldom look across the ages for answers. Working together, younger and older people can serve communities and offer wisdom and fresh perspectives. They have complementary skills and abilities. One community, struggling to find drivers to deliver meals to shut-in seniors, found that by pairing their older volunteers who could drive with newly recruited youth volunteers who could load the cars and carry the meals, they could greatly extend their reach and feed more elders. Another community went so far as to experiment with a collaboration between Meals on Wheels and Drivers Education that encouraged student drivers and their parents to deliver meals while logging the miles needed to pass the Drivers Ed course.
In 1995, when the United Nations officially recognized International Youth Day, it recommended 15 priority areas for countries to consider when developing guidelines and policy frameworks that give youth opportunities to be full, effective, and constructive participants in society. In addition to promoting participation, the United Nations cited intergenerational relations as being critical to young people's well-being.
Clearly, our nation can benefit by engaging people of all ages in service to America. We need to make it as easy as ABC to make all generations feel valued and to strengthen our communities.