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The worth of young Americans

In eastern Massachusetts a high school student's greatest satisfaction is his work as a volunteer, helping young children learn to play hockey. One hundred miles to the west, for two hours every Sunday afternoon a college student visits with senior citizens, the most popular voluntary activity on her campus.

And in California, high school student Andrew Schofield is honored by his Boy Scout troop for heroism, for having rescued a boy from a raging stream this spring.

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They are three among thousands of young Americans who give of themselves to help others. Sometimes they help in ways as dramatic as young Schofield's, more often quietly, like the other two - in ways unrecognized by most adults. Yet those close to young people know the worth of their works, and the splendid caliber of the young themselves: ''We couldn't operate without them,'' says the head of an urban YWCA.

Too often it seems fashionable in contemporary society to rail against young people in general by ascribing to them some negative action or other by one young person. But those who delve into the writings of other American eras can find similar dour views of the young - whether expressed during the 19th, 18th, or 17th centuries - prophesying that the young would be the ruination of the world.

Instead, it turned out that the young were the builders of the world - as, indeed, they now are. That is why it is heartening to note the commitment of today's young in helping others.

The commitment runs, frequently, toward helping the less fortunate, and toward reaching out to the community at large, offering assistance where it most is needed. On several college campuses the most popular voluntary activity is visiting residents of nursing homes, and being a big brother or big sister to a youngster in need. Helping teachers in day-care centers or kindergartens is popular; so is visiting prisoners or institutionalized children judged difficult or troubled.

On some college campuses one-third of the student body participates in formal programs to offer voluntary help to the surrounding community, in line with the Gallup poll of a year and a half ago which found about that percentage of all Americans give of their time in formal programs to aid others.

Then, of course, there is the informal assistance the young give each other: the young man who spends hours every week helping a friend understand the principles of a difficult course, the two high school sisters who rehearse nearly 40 hours during exam time helping a just-selected understudy learn a dance part in time for the performance.

Last spring the young people of Fort Wayne, Ind., received national recognition for having joined in manning the sandbag barricades to play an essential role in saving their city from flood. The accolades were richly deserved.

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But there should not need to be the drama of a flood to cause adults to recognize what splendid deeds many of America's young are quietly doing, for no desired reward other than the satisfaction of having helped others.

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