Kids With Causes

For a growing number of teenagers, the sentiment "I'm OK, who cares about you?" no longer prevails. Though there are no firm numbers on teen activism, many teachers and counselors predict a comeback. Granted, it's not yet a tidal wave of altruism. But in groups or on their own, teenagers are running recycling programs and peer hot lines, staffing soup kitchens and recording senior citizens' oral histories. Peter Scales, deputy director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina, says, "The desire is there. We just have to tap into it."

The timing couldn't be better. As public funding falls short for everything from libraries to after school programs, and as the traditional volunteer pool--i.e., housewives--shrinks, teenagers (as well as senior citizens) are the logical next wave of helpers. Many school systems now require community service, and teenage volunteerism may soon become part of the national agenda. The U.S. Senate has passed a youth service bill that the House is now considering. Among its many components: funding for experimental Youth Corps programs in day-care centers and nursing homes. Even if the need for volunteers weren't so enormous, there would be good reasons for teens to pitch in. "It's a question of being part of a bigger cause," says Marc Miringoff, director of Fordham University's Center for Innovation in Social Policy in Tarrytown, N.Y. Or, as one Hudson, Ohio, teenager put it, "I used to say, "Just let me lead my life.' But now I look around and see a world that needs me."

When the kids of Detroit's Westside Cultural and Athletic Center heard the first shots, they hit the dirt. There was no time to run for cover. In this patch of urban jungle, gunplay is commonplace, and war games look real. Soon, the WCAC kids were back on their feet. "This time it was nothing," says George Smith looking out over the weed-and-gravel field. "We just got up and played baseball."

It's experience, not nonchalance, that informs his speech. George, who began helping out four years ago, is the most dedicated volunteer at WCAC, a hardscrabble mecca for more than 400 children that runs on a tiny $16,000 budget. The 17-year-old high-school junior spends nearly every afternoon there tutoring and coaching sports. A "B" student who wants to study medicine, he brings his own books to the playground to show "that some kids actually do homework." George has become the best--and most accessible--role model many of these kids have. "It's in the simple things he does, like showing up on time or just listening to them," says WCAC director Erica Wright. Mario Henry, 10, says, "George is almost like a teacher but maybe a little better. He's easier to talk to." And Gabriel Knox, 14, calls him "calm and confident. He can get people to listen to him and motivate them real naturally."

George remembers kids from the first WCAC baseball team he played on, at 7. One boy is on drugs now; one is in prison; one is a crack dealer; one may be dead. Some would say George Smith--shy, lean, clean-cut--is lucky, but he has worked hard, too. And despite the praise he gets, he has no illusions about how much he can do for the WCAC kids. "I'm not a martyr," he says. "It can't be up to just me. A lot of people just don't seem to care." Yet George's realistic take on the future is suffused with dreams. "I can see a lot of these kids ending up working at McDonald's. But then again, some are real smart, and maybe with the right push they'll do better. I guess that's why I'm out there, too. I can be part of that right push."

This fish story is true. Six years ago the fledgling ecology club at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif., a middle-class city 36 miles north of San Francisco, began to clean up Adobe Creek. The trout stream, once a healthy home for steel-head, was polluted and neglected. After reeling in 10 tons of junk--car parts, sofas, a washing machine--the students learned a painful lesson. "We cleared the garbage to create the proper environment for the fish to return," says vice president Brian Waits, 18. "What we didn't realize was that the community could put in litter as fast as we could clean it up."

With the help of teacher Tom Furrer, the students built a fish hatchery. Soon, they were fighting one another for the job of cleaning it out during their lunch hour; when the water got too hot, they raced to get ice. They released same 600 trout and catfish--fin-clipped so they could be recognized if they came back to spawn--into local waters. Then, officials ruled that the hatchery did not meet earthquake standards and had to close down. Initially devastated, club members soon resolved to build a better hatchery. It would release 20,000 steelhead and striped bass annually--and carried a $260,000 price tag. The students wrote a 186-page grant proposal and became articulate fund raisers. Donations flowed in (roughly $200,000 to date) and hatchery construction is now underway. "It will be our gift to the younger generation," says president Darcy Hamlow, 18. "Someday this stream will be full of life." This spring, a harbinger swam into view: a 29-inch steelhead, its clipped fins proof that it had been raised by the students.

If you're not involved, you'll never make a change," says Lizz Cohen, 17. "You can talk about it, but it's just talk." She's one of six girls from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., who are the impetus behind plans for a national freedom-of-speech museum in Washington. It began last year, after the sextet--Lizz, Bene Mass, 16; Carol Mack, 18; Heidi Sherman, 16, Jaime Lewis, 17, and Carol Bien-Willner, 18--visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. They went to Capitol Hill and proposed installing a plaque to commemorate the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. They found out that an ordinance prohibits placing a memorial on a memorial, but were only momentarily deterred. When their history teacher, John Calvin, planted the idea for a First Amendment museum in a room to the left of the monument, they were off end running.

At the time Arizona was one of only three states that did not celebrate King's birthday--giving the girls further initiative. (This spring, the legislature voted to observe the holiday.) When they returned to Scottsdale, an affluent almost exclusively white suburb of Phoenix, the students acted with the speed and single-mindedness of a commando unit. As Rep. Bruce Vento explains it: "Nobody told them they couldn't get things done." They sent out information packets and wrote letters outlining their proposal: a museum with an exhibit depicting ways in which Lincoln inspired others--including King--to work for freedom and individual rights.

In March, armed with press clippings and letters of support from politicians and a variety of groups, the girls made a second assault on Washington. Pitching the Lincoln-King connection, they won over key government figures, including the regional head of the National Parks Service, Robert Stanton, and Vento, who chairs the subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. The museum should be ready in 1993. A structural assessment is being done, and the design team will hear the girls' ideas. Carol says, emphatically, "I don't think anything could stop us now."

Charity can also begin right across the border. From home base in Harlingen, Texas, Nora Morales, 17, and Mary Torres, 19, are running their own smallscale international relief effort. They have developed "adopt a school" programs that furnish Mexican pupils and teachers with critical supplies--and personal attention. The seeds were planted in 1987, when Mary heard about a desperately needy school on the other side of the Rio Grande. As Mexican contacts led the girls to more schools, they solicited clothes, books and pencils in Harlingen. Community support has grown so strong that the girls now cross the border regularly with their bounty.

They raised money by selling cowers and balloons; they secured a loan to pay for a well at a school where water was dispensed from a can. Since help from Harlingen began arriving, says Jacinto Villega Garcia, headmaster of one school, teaching and learning have become easier. Many students who stayed away because they couldn't afford pencils and paper are back in class, where once bare walls are covered with maps. "Before we got them, we knew where we lived, but we didn't know where it was," says Jessica Loera, 13. The project has been especially rewarding for Mary, a native of Mexico who will become a U.S. citizen later this year. "We know we have a lot of privileges here," she says. Nora adds, "I have fun, and I'm not wasting my time." She has also paid a personal price--willingly. "I've lost some friendships. Friends say I don't have the time for them anymore, but I feel better knowing that I'm helping people."