- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

Elizabeth Panarelli recently graduated from Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and was accepted at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But she is not going not this fall, anyway.

Miss Panarelli, 18, is going to take a year off, instead. She will work during that time as a preschool special education aide, build housing for the homeless, assist in a Chicago HIV clinic and campaign for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Colorado.

"I've grown up really sheltered, and I would like to see the world," Miss Panarelli says. "I am interested in a career in public service, and this would be a way to experience new things. This may be the only time in my life when I have this freedom."

Along the way, Miss Panarelli along with a friend, Ted Gudmendsen, a fellow Thomas Jefferson graduate who is deferring enrollment at Princeton University for one year will be helping others. In an age of overindulged teenagers some of whom disdain work, paid or otherwise she is part of a growing group that has learned that volunteering or doing paid work that will make a difference can be good for the soul as well as the resume.

"We have definitely seen an increased interest in volunteering to help others," says Sandy Scott, spokesman for AmeriCorps, the youth public service organization. "There have been more hits on our Web site and an increase in applications."

Mr. Scott sees a few reasons for this development. Two primary ones: President Bush urging Americans to perform public service, as well as the aftermath of September 11.

"People are evaluating what is important in life," Mr. Scott says. "Helping others is an important value."

Meanwhile, the Labor Department reports that the number of teenagers working in paid jobs last summer was about 60 percent, the lowest number in nearly 40 years. Numbers are expected to be at a similar level this summer.

Economists say that stock market and income gains in some households make teenagers feel less pressure to do something as menial as scooping ice cream. Also, the downturn in the economy has meant that entry-level jobs are being filled by older workers displaced from other positions.

There is also increased pressure to get involved in academic programs and camps that will increase the chances of getting into a particular college or university.

But there are still going to be teenagers who give of themselves as close by as the neighborhood day camp or as far away as a desert Indian reservation.

Making the commitment

AmeriCorps candidates are a mixture of high school graduates, college graduates and students taking time off from college, Mr. Scott says. In exchange for a year of service, AmeriCorps grads get living expenses and a $4,725 grant to be used for their education.

"It is a fantastic way to make a difference and have an adventure," he says. "Our kids take a year off and help. They see another part of the U.S.A. and check out a potential career, but the number one motivation is they want to help."

Many teenagers come to AmeriCorps after doing community service, which is required for graduation in many schools.

"Some students are coming out with greater levels of awareness," Mr. Scott says. "The U.S. Department of Education says that about one-third of the schools in the United States incorporate 'service learning' as part of the curriculum. So kids are not just learning through textbooks and lectures. It passes on an idea that you are responsible for the community and you can do something about it."

Ideas such as that are being taught young. Five branches of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington will hold Summer of Service programs through late August.

Summer of Service, open to children ages 12 to 15, combines traditional day camp activities with service projects. By helping others, children learn about how they can make a difference in the community, says Janice Williams, vice president of program development. About 200 children are enrolled in the four two-week sessions, she says.

Some of the projects will include working for the Special Olympics, doing landscaping at a center of the blind, collecting used eyeglasses for distribution, working on a water quality improvement project, and working at a retirement home and a homeless shelter.

"I think we don't give enough credit to young people," Ms. Williams says. "People want the opportunity to give back. Children can learn at a young age that they can provide assistance even in a short time. The organized service projects teach team building, leadership and an understanding [that] what they do helps. I have never heard any of these kids grumble, not even when they were picking up garbage."

Jennifer Crump, a youth leader at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Reston, agrees that service projects have a way of bringing out the best in teenagers. She recently took 11 teens to St. Simons Island, Ga., where they helped to build a center for underprivileged youth.

"Teenagers are more generous than we think," Mrs. Crump says. "The top three events we have had this year have been service projects. In this society, adulthood is so postponed, but kids still want to do something important. If you look at them like adults and say, 'You have something to contribute and people need you,' they will do it."

Serving around the Beltway

Rupali Singh has been volunteering for a year at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Rupali, 17, of Vienna, calls the experience "fantastic." Among her responsibilities are escorting patients to get MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and to the lobby, and delivering flowers and newspapers.

"I love to meet people and get to know them," she says. "It is a great feeling to know you have done something good for them that day."

Rupali began volunteering as part of a 10-hour requirement for graduation from James Madison High School. She liked the work so much, she says, she kept volunteering on Saturdays. She also has parlayed her experience into a part-time paid job at the front desk.

"I am also interested in the medical field," says Rupali, who wants to major in biology when she attends George Mason University this fall.

"A lot of [high school] seniors have jobs at the mall," Rupali says. "Or you can work at a restaurant and make great tips. A whole bunch of my friends do that, but I really like it when you feel like you have done something that has made a difference in someone's life. I take a lot of parents and their newborns to discharge. Once, they took pictures of me as we were walking out of the hospital. It was a such a momentous occasion for them, and I felt like I was a part of it."

Jessica Handleman, a recent graduate of Churchill High School in Potomac, agrees that making a difference is more important than making minimum wage. Miss Handleman, 18, has a paid job at Germantown's Valley Mill Day Camp, where she is a senior counselor. She also is a recent graduate of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Training Academy, which certifies her to assist the rescue squad on ambulance calls.

"Working with kids appeals to me," says Miss Handleman, who will attend York College in York, Pa., in September. "You get paid to have fun, play sports and do crafts, but working with the [fire] department is one of the best things I have done. There is kind of an adrenaline rush in helping people. It is one of the best things I have done."


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