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True Altruism

Sep
8
2006

Thank you, Kathy Seal.
Having spent a few volunteer gigs with teenagers “helping out” as a way to have a community service to list on a college application, I was beginning to feel like a cranky curmudgeon for wanting them to get their lazy butts out of the way so I could get something done.
I know: Tell us how you really feel, Jeanne.
Now before you click that “send e-mail” button, let me just say that I’m aware there are teenagers who genuinely help out and do it out of a realization that we’re all in this together. And I’m sure that teenager is your teenager.
I’m referring to the college-bound students nudged along by their parents and put under the charge of regular volunteers whose time is already stretched to the breaking point. This volunteer trains the teen, who is usually reluctant since the assumption is that volunteer work is unskilled labor and “I’m, like, doing this for free, ya know, and now I have to, like, learn something too?”
It usually comes as a shock to them that they actually have to work in addition to showing up.
Of course, their parents or guidance counselor has sold them on the idea of volunteering by telling them “it’ll be fun!”
Let me tell you from firsthand experience: When a kid thinks it’s going to be fun and it’s not, one of two things happen. If you’re lucky they’ll just quit and never come back. But every now and then there is the teen that decides that if it isn’t fun, he is going to make it fun. The results can be disastrous and require copious amounts of Clorox. Enough said.
The argument in favor of requiring community service of a student is that it develops the habit of giving, although I was under the impression that such a practice usually doesn’t entail reciprocity like – er, say – a reference.
In addition, if true kindness isn’t at the heart of what you’re doing, your standards tend to slip.
A friend told me of taking a group of teens to help clean up the home of a 90-year-old woman who, while able to care for herself, had been unable to clean or maintain her home for some time. Needless to say, the vermin population was healthy.
The group set immediately to work on the kitchen where the mouse droppings were particularly plentiful. Screaming ensued followed by a lively game of Toss the Dead Rodent, where the outnumbered boys chased giggling girls through the house.
Now all this would have been understandable and tolerated but for one thing. The poor old woman sat in the living room, wringing her hands in embarrassment. My friend pulled the teens and returned the next week with his church’s men’s group.
Happily, Seal points out through the Pomona College Dean of Admissions Bruce Poch, most colleges see through this façade of altruism. But there are still high school guidance counselors, administrators and entire school systems sold on this idea, sometimes making it a requirement of graduation.
I don’t need a study such as the one sited by Seal to tell me mandates do not create giving, aware adults. I merely have to talk to a high school teacher I know who was the school’s facillatator for the junior version of a local civic association. She’d organized three opportunities for the club members, all recruited in the fall, to serve the community. Only one member showed up consistently, no more than two at each event. Yet seven students listed the organization under their yearbook photo.
There are the true givers and “requiring” volunteerism does a disservice to the kids who have been helping out all along, though not necessarily through official channels. These kids didn’t have to enter high school to find out there are things they can do to help their community. They’ve already learned the habit of looking around to see what needs to be done and doing it. It’s a quality more valuable than the jerry-rigged manipulation of college resumes.
These are the kids who shovel their elderly neighbors’ driveways while they’ve got their momentum going of shoveling their own. They don’t know how to not pick their neighbor’s newspaper out of the rain and put it on their porch.
When I had to load groceries into my car with one hand, my other burned and bandaged, two boys I’d never met ran over and loaded them for me, running off before I even had a chance to verbally thank them, let alone offer them a couple of bucks for their trouble. It was as though what they had done was what anyone else would have done though, curmudgeonly me, I know that’s not true.
I would love to talk to the head of their college admissions department.
I would have loved to meet their parents.

Share  Posted by Jeanne Jackson at 10:31 AM | Permalink

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