WYTHE COUNTY, Va., March 17, 2012 — In difficult and tumultuous times like these, it’s hard to have faith in anything. When today’s young adults are discussed, they’re often described with words like “spoiled” and “privileged.” Their elders have little faith in them, but I have reason to believe they are our best hope.
West Virginia is most often ridiculed as the stereotype for all things Appalachian, but preconceived notions fell to the wayside the more time I spent there. Fate or fortune landed me in Charleston, West Virginia last summer, one of the last places one would expect to renew her faith in the next generation.
It seemed like everyone I was introduced to was a socially conscious and active participant in seeking positive change. There was one group that stood out even amongst these: the VISTA volunteers. A dedicated group of young adults who surrendered a year of their young lives to volunteer in helping the forty six million Americans who live in poverty overcome their disadvantages.
VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), conceived as John F. Kennedy’s vision, was realized two years later when President Johnson sent out the all volunteer organization’s first inductees into the field.
VISTA is one of several lasting anti-poverty programs created by The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to serve the needs of Americans living in poverty. This means that the long-term needs are met by self-sustaining agencies and programs. VISTA volunteers have historically initiated solutions that stand the test of time in meeting the needs that the original designers of the program had in mind. Among the most successful are the Head Start and Job Corps programs, but VISTA has had its hand in everything from health care to housing and agricultural coops to actual construction of program centers.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service and brought the full range of domestic community service programs under the administration of one central organization.
It also formally launched AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that allows Americans intensive hands-on service experience to meet the nation’s critical needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.
A comprehensive study, Still Serving: Measuring the Eight Year Impact of Americorps on Alumni, determined that a staggering sixty percent of state and national Americorps alumni still work in nonprofit or governmental agencies, addressing the most pressing needs of Americans.
Since 1994, more than 540,000 Americans have served in Americorps. Since 1994, more than 9,900 West Virginia residents have served more than 10 million hours and have qualified for Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards that total more than $22,000,000. This year alone, more than one thousand volunteers will be working in West Virginia to help address everything from environmental court cases to women’s health issues.
Proximity to the capital building in Charleston, and therefore regular interaction with the various VISTA programs and volunteers, did more to renew my faith in mankind than anything before or since. Not only did I meet these amazing young adults, I met the friends they made while in the service. Their friends were no less community-minded; indeed it seemed the entire neighborhood was full of action-minded young adults.
A study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with other agencies determined just how much youths aged from twelve to eighteen do to volunteer. An estimated 15.5 million teens performed volunteer service in 2004, contributing more than 1.3 billion hours of service. This is more than one and a half times the adult volunteer rate of 29 percent. An amazing 5.9 million, or 39 percent, volunteered on a regular basis.
After my experience of last summer, I though the statistics would support my faith in this generation, but I had no idea the numbers would be so impressive. I had only my personal experience with the young adults in my own family, community, and my regular interaction with those in Charleston on which to base my personal opinion.
After hours perusing this study, I have drawn my own conclusions. Conclusion number one: It never ceases to amaze me how much West Virginia amazes me. Conclusion number two: it never ceases to amaze me how much this generation of teens amazes me.
Whether in West Virginia or east side St. Louis, this generation will address the most formidable issues, such as the environment, global warming, famine, over population, and a myriad of others we have so long ignored. This generation will not buckle under the weight of the task at hand.
Anyone can be a pessimist. It’s an easy position to take, but what’s wrong with a little faith?
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