Monday, July 23, 2007

A Challenge

Marilyn, Betty, Carol, Chris, Barbara, Les, Sally, Lillian, Gail and Don; and Peter, Phil, Larry and Don.

Those are the roll calls for two volunteer projects I worked on today. The first group sorted books for our Hillsdale Benefit Book Sale next Sunday. Over the last five weeks, the sorters have categorized at least 8,000 books in the old Estby gas station, the site of the sale. It has been a huge task.

Sale proceeds, which could reach $5,000, will benefit our community.

The second group laid down 200-pound concrete piers for an elevated trail/walkway through the swampy sections of the Stephens Creek Nature Park. These guys have been at it for weeks. Never easy, it is particularly tough work in the muck of the creek bottom.

Their volunteering has taken a job estimated to cost $400,000 for a full-blown, city-built bridge and cut it back to a volunteer project costing $10,000 in materials. They call the difference ingenuity, determination and “social capital.”

Don Baack and I straddled the two teams today. At the site of the book sale the two of us re-installed the big “Book Sale Here Sunday” sign out in front of the abandoned gas station. Late Saturday, skateboarders decided the plywood sign would make a great ramp. Somehow they were oblivious to the “ramp’s” also being a sign. It escaped them that skate skid marks would destroy it as a sign.

The sign, by the way, was painted by two Wilson High School volunteers. I recruited one, my neighbor Hilary and she invited a friend to help her. They did a great job, which I managed to restore by painting over most of the skid marks and touching up the letters.

(Note in passing: We need a skateboard park in Hillsdale. Skateboarding is a great sport — in its place.)

I hope others will share similar stories of community involvement by young people like Hilary and her friend. We are attracting a few kids to help at the farmers market. OK, so we are happily paying them modest wages, but they seem to be getting the community-building bug in the process.

I’d like to get more young people involved in projects like these. The average age of those on the rosters above must be somewhere in the mid- to late-Sixties. The majority are certainly grandparents.

It reminds me of something sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his classic “Bowling Alone, The collapse and revival of American community” about a sliver of a generation, born at just about the time of the Second World War. That cohort has distinguished itself as volunteers. Which isn’t to detract from the work of other volunteers from other generations. Far from it, but Putnam reports that volunteering has declined alarmingly since the rise of TV.

His main point is that this civically involved sliver was the last pre-television youthful slice of American society. We (and, yes, I am among them) were the last to have childhoods in which we spent significantly more time in real world play than in being entertained and enticed by the tube, and now the computer.

To some extent, our last pre-TV generation is setting an example, if young people can just get by the fact that we are, well, old. It turns out that many of us are blessed with remarkably good health. Putnam, by the way, notes that it has been shown that volunteering and good health go together. Well, the backs aren’t what they used to be…. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we are semi-retired, or entirely retired, and have time, but we too could choose the tube.

To not choose the tube, is to take back time — four and a half hours a day, on average.

One more thing: my generational cohort vote in disproportionate numbers. Politicians ignore us at their peril.

So here’s a challenge to the younger generation: Out-do us. Out-volunteer us. Out-vote us.

I think I can speak for my fellow graying and balding volunteers when I say, We welcome being shown up.

So, while it’s summer, while there’s time, show up and pitch in. Find time to do it during the school year. Take your “community service” graduation requirement seriously. Don’t treat it as a requirement at all, but as an opportunity and a gift, to you and to us.

Putnam, writing seven years ago, repeats the challenge in a slightly different way:

“So I set before America’s parents, educators, and, above all, America’s young adults the following challenge: Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 the level of civic engagement among Americans then coming of age in all parts of our society will match that of their grandparents when they were that same age, and that at the same time bridging social capital will be substantially greater than it was in their grandparents’ era.”

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