"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 favorites.

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.