"Volunteering is the rent I pay for
the space I occupy on this earth." If you "Google" this quote, you will find
that it has been attributed to everyone from Muhammad Ali to Jane Deeter Rippin
to Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless of who uttered it first, it is one of my
So what on earth does volunteering
and giving community service have to do with education, with academic
achievement, with the mission of the schools?
I believe that it is just as
important to nurture and develop a young person’s sense of being a responsible
"citizen of the earth" — member of the human race — as it is to achieve the
"merit" recognized by A’s and B’s. I believe that true merit is achieving a life
that is positive, productive, wholesome, contributing, self-sufficient,
meaningful and satisfying. As a former school board member in Detroit and as a
parent who encouraged my children to always do their academic best, I
enthusiastically believe that achieving high test scores and good grades is
extremely important for many reasons. But just like making a huge income cannot
by itself bring meaning to life — neither are A’s and B’s alone enough to
achieve true merit.
Webster defines "merit" as, "1a:
obsolete: reward or punishment due b: the qualities or actions
that constitute the basis of one’s deserts c: a praiseworthy quality:
virtue d: character or conduct deserving reward, honor, or esteem;
also: achievement 2: spiritual credit held to be earned by
performance of righteous acts and to ensure future benefits."
I believe that Webster gives us the
missing link in our concept of merit, which is much broader than A’s and B’s.
Achieving academic merit takes confidence as well as skill. I strongly believe
that children should experience the liberation and self-affirming joy of giving
service to others — the transformative power of making a difference — as a way
of rounding out their growth and development, as well as empowering their
confidence for academic success.
I have had the joy and great
privilege of serving for almost 30 years in the leadership of nonprofit
youth-serving agencies and educational institutions in Detroit. In doing so, I
have learned more than I have led, and my life has been enriched far more than I
have contributed. One of the great treasures I have discovered along the way is
Search Institute —
www.search-institute.org — an internationally renowned
organization that has studied over a million young people to document what
produces healthy children, youth and communities. Their mission statement says,
"At the heart of the institute’s work is the framework of 40 Developmental
Assets, which are positive experiences and personal qualities that young people
need to grow up healthy, caring and responsible."
Community service is ranked high
among the "40 Developmental Assets" compiled for every age group studied. The 40
Assets for elementary age children include, "Service to others — children serve
others in the community with their family or in other settings." Among the 40
Assets for adolescents is, "Service to others — Young person serves in the
community one hour or more per week."
Wow! Adolescents are middle
schoolers — and Search Institute, one of the most highly respected youth
research organizations in the world, has found that doing 52 hours of service
per year influences successful youth development. Surely we can justify
requiring 40 hours of service from our high school students — a total of
40 hours over 4 years! Hopefully, some will become inspired to exceed this
minimum standard. An average of ten hours per year barely scratches the surface
of the positive transformation that our children could be experiencing, not to
mention the benefit that our entire state would receive from the energy and hard
work of Michigan’s young people.
I recently returned from my
organization’s annual "national convention of idealism," at which over 1000
young adult AmeriCorps volunteers serving full time with City Year come together
from 15 cities nationwide for a week of service, education and inspiration. Our
mission is that their lives will be forever transformed and that they will become lifetime community servants
— regardless of their professional careers or life choices. Whether they become
teachers or accountants or social workers or attorneys or artists or skilled
tradespersons or CEOs, as well as homemakers and parents, we hope they will
always give back to their communities. Not only will their service enrich their
lives forever, but our entire country could be positively transformed.
Michigan can experience that same
transformation if we can inspire and harness the energy and idealism of our
young people. Even better, their lives will be enriched and transformed forever.
They will learn to reach out to others beyond their own neighborhoods and
communities; they will collaborate with nonprofit agencies and gain first-hand knowledge of what life
is really like for people different from themselves. They will experience the
absolute pride and joy of being responsible — of paying "rent" for the space
they occupy on this earth. They will find a purpose for their academic success
and a way to put it to great use.
Martin Luther King said, "Everybody
can be great, because everybody can serve." Being great by Dr. King’s standard
can give our children a feeling of confidence and power that can only enhance
their ability to succeed academically. Only then can they take that academic
achievement and use it for good in the world. That’s what true merit is all about.
Penny Bailer has served the Detroit
community for almost 30 years in various nonprofit and educational leadership
roles, including as an elected school board member in 1990-94. Currently she
serves as executive director of City Year Detroit and as a member of the
Michigan Merit Award Board.