If we measure work the way we normally do, in dollars, we owe the 554 students assembled at the Hotel Murano this week about $1,206,966 worth of thanks.
The students from 36 local high schools all lettered in community service. They had worked at least 145 volunteer hours, and like athletes, they were there to accept the fabric patches that honor that accomplishment.
Also like high-achieving athletes, many had done more than the minimum. The young people averaged 241 hours.
Do the multiplication with the $9.04 state minimum wage, and you get that $1.2 million – a donation that outshines what most major philanthropies sink into Pierce County in a year.
And because these are teenagers, that high value, measured in social capital, multiplies itself exponentially.
United Way of Pierce County set up the Varsity Letter in Community Service in 2001 as a way to honor volunteers the way we recognize athletes. As far as they know, it was the first program of its kind in the nation, said communications manager Nicole Milbradt.
At the first year’s awards in 2002, eight young people earned the letter. The fact that 70 times that many high school students earned the letter this year shows how popular it’s become.
Jay Brower, Bethel School District’s community connections director, sees genius in the design, what it recognizes about kids, and what it helps them realize.
“I think children want to do good,” Brower said. “You see toddlers, and as they grow, I think they have a predisposition to do good and be community-minded. If we can catch them and continue them on that pathway, that’s how you raise civic-minded people.”
Kids don’t want to do good because they’re aspiring saints. They want to do it because it makes them happy. Now it makes them cool, too.
At Bethel High, the football team demonstrates how it works, and brings more kids along.
“They decided they wanted a team that plays well off the field, too,” Brower said. “It’s an expectation that you will participate. It’s had a tremendous effect on all of our youth. They learn the importance not only of competition, but cooperation and service.”
They hold food drives, volunteer at churches and camps, and do yardwork for elderly neighbors. They visit the residents at Orting’s Washington Soldiers Home on Veterans Day.
At Graham-Kapowsin High School, the football team rustled up volunteers to pick rhubarb, then sold the rhubarb to buy food for a summer lunch program for low- income kids.
In Tacoma, MetroParks has a program that fits the letter program perfectly: a youth volunteer corps called Student Hosts Enhancing Recreation Programs and Services.
These SHERPAS don’t carry gear up Mount Kilimanjaro, but they do carry plants for customers at the Point Defiance plant sale. They wash dishes at local park events.
“They volunteer at summer camp, direct traffic at events, hide Easter eggs,” said director Sangkros Lok. “Whatever the need is, we’re there. Yes, we really are the sherpas. We take programs to the top.”
In doing so, they get to the top, too.
“They know the value of volunteering,” Lok said. “They make a change, and they know it, and they are encouraging other kids to volunteer.”
They are recruiting kids who yearn to belong and to be valued, just as, on the dark side, gangs do.
“Remember, all students are part of a gang,” Brower said. “The more we show youth how to be gang members in a pro-social way, the more that will pay huge dividends.”
Collaborating with schools, United Way is making it easier for kids to volunteer at something that interests them.
Demanding a bit less than a month of volunteer work, it teaches kids what it takes to achieve a meaningful goal. It also demonstrates that doing good is fun.
“They get the joy of service at an earlier age,” Brower said. “They see that as a great part of life. We really believe it carries on into their adult life.”
Then there is the affirmation, the Youth United Varsity Letter, the lifetime souvenir that invites them to a life of service.kathleen.merryman @thenewstribune.com 253-597-8677