The Change You Wish to See...

February 9, 2010
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You get into your car as the day begins to break over Pittsburgh, and you battle to beat the rush-hour traffic on your commute to work. The structural integrity of your car is chipped away as you bounce through the potholes and pass the crumbling South Side buildings lining the green marsh of the Ohio River. Through it all, the littered streets and smell of the local Alcosan drain pipe beg the question: Where are all the volunteers? The youth of Pittsburgh, the prime urbanites for community service, go to school all day, and then go home to lose sight of hard work and why helping their community can be beneficial. In order to help the community and get the youth of Pittsburgh up off the couch, we need to make community service a mandatory requisite for graduation.

Too many people these days can go through their entire lives without having to give back to the community they live in. They live only to better themselves, tearing up the roads of life in their wake without repaving it for those who follow. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only one in five Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 did community service in 2008—a number that has been dropping by an average of one percent each year. On that graph, we can predict that that percent will drop to 19% or less by the end of 2010. And out of the total number of Americans that did do community service last year, how many of those did so of their own volition? We all know that community service is a common punishment for misdemeanors, so who would volunteer to do what is widely considered a punishment? Let’s face it, the only way to get people to help out their community and see the benefits it can bring is to make it a requirement for a high school diploma.

But community service does not just benefit the community—it can benefit the youth of America as well. It should really be called ‘community and health service.’ How? Federal health officials have conducted studies of over eight thousand children, and found that 32 percent of them had body fat compositions that put them at risk of high blood pressure or Type II Diabetes. That amounts to nearly one in three children that are obese, a number that has tripled in the last ten years. How does community service change this? Well the Corporation for National and Community Service reported in 2007 that “in general, volunteers report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than do non-volunteers, and their life satisfaction and physical health improves at a greater rate as a result of volunteering.” Mandatory community service for public schools would get Pittsburghers off the couch and into the streets, hospitals, shelters, and soup kitchens, where they could really make a difference in both their lives, and the lives of others.

But of course, half of the term community service is community, and it would not really be called that if it did not benefit, of course, the community. The shocks on our cars are tested in a lab, why should we re-test them every time we drive down Route 19? Likewise, Alcosan’s job is to make water drinkable, not to make sure our noses can find their sewage pipe hiding three hundred feet away. With low numbers of community volunteers, we need a new way to make the three rivers that define us as Pittsburghers cleaner, and save our undercarriages from the rigors of Pittsburgh potholes. So why not make high school students our soldiers of sanitation? Pittsburgh has been cleaned up dramatically in the last fifty years, but it’s time we really launched ourselves into a new era of cleanliness. We need to shatter the paradigm of Polluted Pittsburgh, and we need the fittest, liveliest members of the community to do it—our youth.

Of course, high school kids already have a lot balancing precariously on their plate. They have homework to do, tests to study for, colleges to apply to, and many have jobs to work as well, so how can anyone possibly fit in mandatory community service as well? Well, just ask the kids from Seattle Public schools, who are required to fit in 60 hours of service before graduation, or from Clonlara School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who have to do 180 hours. Consider this: If Pittsburgh teens had to do 60 hours of community service before graduation, that is only 15 hours per school year. Divide that by 52 weeks in a year (including summer), and you’re at 17 minutes per week. I don’t think I even need to find an average per day—it would be measured in seconds. An average of only seventeen minutes per week is a very small price to pay for helping the underprivileged or cleaning up our streets.

No more will our cars beg for mercy as they bounce through the potholes, or our kayakers fall into the river and come out with three eyes, or our noses cringe in horror when passing an Alcosan pipe. No longer will the elderly have no one to read to them, or the soup kitchens be struggling for employment. The tiny price of minutes a day is all we must pay for a cleaner and healthier tomorrow. If we want to take this image of a dirty and soiled Pittsburgh and stomp it down into the dust, we need to step up and take the community service into the schools. Be the change to wish to see in the world. Contact your superintendents—a cleaner city is just around the corner.

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