- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is on to something.

He announced Tuesday that $2.3 million in funding from AmeriCorps will enable young people 17 to 24 to become yearlong tutors and mentors to D.C. youths and will support programs to prevent teen pregnancy.

Giving back in any capacity is honorable, whether that entails spending Thanksgiving Day feeding the hungry or making a long-standing role-model commitment as a Big Sister.

The very fact that you are trying to make a difference makes a difference. That’s why I started out saying Mr. Gray is on to something: He is encouraging D.C. residents to become points of light and help make this a kinder and gentler city.

Now, don’t jump to conclusions. Mr. Gray isn’t morphing into George H.W. Bush, but the true-blue Democrat seemingly has boarded the timeless bandwagon Mr. Bush once called “taking part and pitching in.”

While it’s far too early for shouts of hallelujah, fist bumps certainly are in order for Mr. Gray’s simple concept, called Volunteer This Summer, which urges adults and youths to give back in their neighborhoods and beyond.

The initiative also calls for partnering with faith-based organizations, an effort that, in and of itself, is deserving of a hearty “Amen” because the helping hands at churches and synagogues and organizations such as Catholic Charities and the God-centered Salvation Army have long reached out to serve D.C. residents without prejudice.

Citing belt-tightening, Mr. Gray said now is the time for residents to give back by registering with community groups to volunteer their time, talent, service and resources.

“There are many organizations that are vital to our city,” the mayor said. “They provide services and resources to District residents year ‘round. Today we praise them for their efforts, encourage them to join us this summer and urge District residents to volunteer with them.”

If the mayor’s volunteer initiative has a shortcoming, it would be the shortsightedness of focusing only on the summer months. That’s worth noting because, like school systems around the country, D.C. Public Schools requires students to complete at least 100 hours of volunteer community service to graduates.

The new policy, which took effect this school year, also says students’ community service doesn’t count if it occurs during the summer, the extent of the mayor’s program.

There are other reasonable requirements of the D.C. schools’ policy that zero in on the operative word — “volunteer.”

* Students must volunteer at a 501(c)3 organization that meets IRS requirements.

* Students cannot receive money compensation.

* Students must be in high school.

One hundred hours is nothing for teens who spend hours every day downloading songs, watching YouTube, updating their Facebook pages, playing video games and hanging out at the mall and recreation centers on weekends.

I know, I know.

If the government mandates you to volunteer, you aren’t really volunteering.


But here’s the thing: It’s better that youths learn the difference between offering a hand up and receiving a handout rather than being mislead into thinking Uncle Sam is a substitute for their baby’s daddy.

That may sound like a wayward stereotype, but let’s be real.

Every year, City Hall ratchets up the social-safety-net rhetoric during budget talks, and this year was no different despite the fact that the mayor said there was a “collaborative spirit” in recent months.

What is different is that the District has a mayor who identified a civic need, issued a citywide call for volunteerism and set up a website where residents can plug in (onecitysummer.dc.gov ).

Servicing the public is not the exclusive domain of government.

Citizenship and humanitarianism are in the mix, too.

That’s why we don’t need the Bible to teach us that God helps those who help themselves.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com

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