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Tapping That Energy

So many people who work with young people and youth organizations have been heartened by the enthusiasm and energy that American teens and young adults displayed leading up to the presidential election this month.

Even students who are still too young to cast a vote were following the race, expressing their views on issues via blogs and social networking sites, and even volunteering in the campaigns.

This week in Washington, experts involved in programs serving youth said that the youth factor in the election and the growing numbers of teenagers participating in community service, as seen in this new report, send a message that the time is right to work hard on policies and projects that nurture and utilize the talents of young people. The report found increasing numbers of schools that offer or recognize community service opportunities, but fewer opportunities for service learning, which links service to academics.

"There has been fast growth in this sector...and it's an opportunity to do a better job of keeping pace," by providing community service outlets for youth, David Eisner, the chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said during a panel discussion at the Academy for Educational Development.

But how to do that is a complex challenge that is open to debate. Robert Sherman, who was a program director for the New York City-based Surdna Foundation until recently, said he would like to see schools promote a deep and value-added commitment to service. He described three levels of involvement that characterize people who generally get involved in service activities. Using a community food drive as an example, he said one person buys and donates the food items, a second person organizes and works on the drive, and the third person asks why hunger is so prevalent in the community and what can be done about it.

While the three people are all critical to the success of the drive, it is the third group that his foundation believes will have the broadest impact on the community.

"It gets down to where will you choose to make your investment," Mr. Sherman, referring to which projects and programs foundations decide to fund. "How we made our choice at the Surdna Foundation is to award youth organizations in which the work of the few benefitted the many."

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