From USA Today

Nation needs youthful idealism more than ever
By Michelle Obama for USA TODAY

Embedded in our nation’s core values is a spirit of community, generosity and entrepreneurship — a can-do attitude that says no challenge is insurmountable.
When so many people are struggling to make ends meet, we need everyone pulling together to solve our nation’s problems and to lift up our fellow Americans. And this includes our young people. Today, more than ever, we need their energy, enthusiasm and idealism.

Service groups, non-profits, faith-based organizations, philanthropists, corporations, government and individuals all have a role to play in moving this country forward, and more and more students are filling these ranks.

Every day we hear stories of people rising to the occasion and making a real difference: the retiree who volunteers at the local elementary school to help children learn to read; the woman down the block who watches out for her neighbor’s kids after school — providing a snack, some wisdom and a home with a light on until parents return from a long day of work; the mothers and fathers in a neighborhood who coach Little League and soccer and teach kids about good sportsmanship and perseverance and teamwork.

These adults know the value of service and make it an integral part of their lives. And even more importantly, by being good neighbors, concerned citizens and solid role models, they are helping to train the next generation of community leaders.

When I made the decision to leave my job to found Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program in Chicago that prepares youth for public service, I realized right away that I had made the right decision. There are few things more rewarding than watching young people recognize they have the power to enrich not only their own lives, but the lives of those around them as well.

Research shows that the current generation of young people is one of the most socially conscious and active, with 61% of 13- to 25-year-olds saying they feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world. And with the recent passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, we can tap into this enthusiasm and usher in a new era of service in this nation.

This bipartisan legislation promotes the cause of service among young people by investing in service-learning. It is never too early to encourage kids to better their community or begin investing in their own future. And some are truly making a difference.

Students such as those at the Collegiate School in Manhattan, led by Avery Hairston, who launched a program called RelightNY. They are working with companies and foundations to acquire energy-saving light bulbs and install them in low-income housing communities, saving on both electric costs and carbon emissions. These young men represent the next generation of social innovators!

The Serve America Act will also dramatically increase the number of full- and part-time service opportunities for college-age students by expanding AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions a year to 250,000 by 2017, and providing more than $5,000 a year to help those students pay for college.

This will help folks such as Kierstin Quinsland of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Nicole Fauble of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, who work at Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless service agency near the White House. Every day, Kierstin and Nicole provide case management services to homeless men and women who come for a nutritious meal served in an atmosphere of dignity and respect. Each has recently signed up to volunteer for an additional year at Miriam’s.

Through a new service corps founded in the Serve America Act, students will work on national priorities such as education, health care, clean energy and supporting veterans’ organizations. They will work with organizations such as YouthBuild, an AmeriCorps program providing opportunities for low-income youth to rebuild their communities, learn job skills, complete their high school education and graduate.

YouthBuild began more than 30 years ago as a program to rebuild housing units in low-income communities. It has withstood the test of time because it has evolved to include green building, energy-saving practices and environmental awareness programs.

The message of YouthBuild is so important: Participating in national and community service is not just an escape for the wealthy or for those students who can afford it; it is an integral part of empowering all our young people and making our communities stronger.

And this is what I find so inspiring. RelightNY, the JVC and the LVC and YouthBuild all demonstrate that, given the chance, young people will take responsibility for making their communities stronger. They know that each of us has something to contribute. And they are ready to lead the way.

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