Volunteering to Change the World

Volunteering to Change the World

How do you change the world? The Points of Light Institute and Hasbro believe that the best way to do it is through empowering the youngest generation. The reason is simple: Youth volunteers help make our world a better place to live today and give us all hope for the possibilities of tomorrow.

At the Points of Light Institute we believe in tapping into the power of people through service. At the core of this theory of change is our conviction that supporting the participation of young people in volunteering and service is critical to building a society of educated, engaged citizens. To that end, this month we launched a new global movement to inspire and empower kids to discover that they are never too young to make their mark on the world. We call this movement generationOn.

We know that kids genuinely want to help, and we also know that the biggest challenge they have faced to date has been a lack of access to volunteer opportunities. generationOn is a platform for all youth service and community organizations to work together and help kids discover their potential through the transformative power of service. Through projects that identify and address community needs, volunteer service that brings together diverse groups of young people for a common cause, and leadership opportunities that link civic awareness with the transition to adulthood, the initiative aims to provide millions of children with the tools they need to get involved. And thanks to a generous grant from the Hasbro Children's Fund, these projects and this vision finally have the resources needed to gain a foothold in communities across the U.S. and around the globe.

But challenges remain. How do we reach a generation of kids that learned how to text as soon as they could spell? How do we engage kids who are struggling in school to go the extra mile for others in their communities? How do we motivate all kids to take action? By starting early, by making service cool, and by doing our best to integrate it into the curriculum.

When we ask a young person to serve, we change how she views her role in the world. The simple act of asking sends a child the message that the world needs her, and that her voices and actions count. As an advocate for early exposure and engagement of children in volunteer activities, generationOn is changing the way volunteer agencies view the importance of young people in their programs. We would never delay in teaching our children math or how to read, so why wait to teach them about community, service, and their potential to change the world for the better?

generationOn offers programs for kids starting as early as the preschool years, when kids are modeling positive behaviors learned from their parents. For years, research has shown that empathy and concern for others are two of the most important outcomes of service-learning, particularly when introduced in early childhood. (Interestingly, lack of empathy has been shown to be a characteristic of many young people who end up in the juvenile justice system.) Yet service as a graduation requirement typically has been limited to private high schools. So while teaching kids to "do good" may sound simple, it's serious business, and we believe it can be part of the solution for reaching today's at-risk youth.

What's truly unique about generationOn, however, is that we are building an organization that puts kids first. To that end, we're partnering with Hasbro and the HUB, organizations that are expert in reaching kids and getting them excited about new trends, ideas, and activities. Young people want to help and they have the creativity, ingenuity, and energy to tackle real-world issues. If we add the means and give them opportunities to imagine a better world, we give them HOPE. And that, in turn, will give us hope that the next generation is better equipped to tackle and solve the big problems we and our parents have failed to address.

Whether organizing a neighborhood walk to inspire healthy living, fundraising to purchase thousands of energy-efficient light bulbs, or raising their voices for educational reform, generationOn youth are making their mark on the world. Recently, in conjunction with Kids Care Week and Make A Difference Day, members of the Baldwin Rockets Kids Care Club in Manassas, Virginia, led their entire 600-student elementary school student body in promoting drug prevention and "planting character," with each student planting a red tulip bulb in front of the school to signify their pledge to stay drug free. Members of the club also organized additional planting and a clean-up effort in the community park next to their school, a place known to local law enforcement as an area where drugs are sold.

Of course, starting a "movement" is not just about reaching a single audience. We've got to reach all kids, wherever they may be, through their families and in their schools. generationOn programs connect students to what's going on in the world. Through service, kids are able to apply the lessons they learn in the classroom to the real world. Those lessons are particularly poignant in communities struggling with high dropout, poverty, and crime rates, and where citizens too often are seen as mere recipients of service. generationOn teaches kids that they are not powerless or helpless. And that's what makes our projects so valuable. They're not just about volunteer action; they're about the shift in perspective that comes with understanding that each and every one of us matters.

At the end of the day, that's what volunteering is all about and what generationOn seeks to provide to all kids: the chance to make a difference in their communities and help change the world around them for the better. Won't you join us?

Michelle Nunn is the CEO of Points of Light Institute and co-founder of Hands On Network, the main business unit within the institute.