BATON ROUGE, LA.
Choung Nguyen was facing chaos on the basketball court. Older children were fighting for the ball while the younger ones broke down in tears, unable to compete. Thinking on the run, Choung swiftly shifted to a line game where everyone could participate.
"They all got to shoot, and the smaller ones stopped crying and asking to go home," Choung says.
Choung is one of thousands of teens from Baton Rouge to Seattle who are setting aside part of the summer to lend their community a helping hand at local food banks, camps for disabled children, and nursing homes. While polishing a resume for college and finding a job often remain high priorities for teens, many still find time to volunteer.
For Choung, who is alternately teacher and friend to a horde of youngsters at the Community Association for the Welfare of Schoolchildren (CAWS), the payoff is great.
"The kids come running toward me every morning trying to shake my hand," he says. "They really respect me."
Choung is one of 240 eighth- through 12th-graders who are members of VolunTeens, a six-year-old Baton Rouge youth-service program affiliated with the nonprofit Youth Volunteer Corps of America (YVCA). One of 45 such groups nationwide, the organization builds teams of six to 10 boys and girls from different schools, grade levels, and ethnic backgrounds to work together on a variety of one or two-week projects.
Such work is a priority with many teens. According to a recent poll by WhoCares Magazine and the Center for Policy Alternatives, more than 40 percent of college-age students had "occasionally or frequently" volunteered to work for a cause they cared about.
The value of these programs for teens is immense, says Lynne Ford, assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. In addition to boosting the self-esteem and confidence of participants, successful youth-service corps also instill a greater sense of empathy and tolerance for others.
"A kid who has a positive experience with the corps will show [greater] confidence in the future of the community and a sense of belonging in the community," says Dr. Ford, who has served as an independent evaluator for YVCA for the past five years.
Last summer, high-schooler Laura Epstein literally helped change the face of Seattle. Participating in a YVCA graffiti paint-out project, Laura and a team of eight others worked with the city's solid-waste department painting over graffiti in public venues and private homes in downtown Seattle.
The project eventually metamorphosed into mural painting. Laura helped decorate a blank park wall - a popular graffiti target - with a mural of giant bugs.
As the team painted, a couple of neighborhood kids came out regularly to help. "That was the best part - having the neighbor kids help us paint and get involved," Laura says. "It wasn't a very wealthy neighborhood, and now the kids will have the mural."
In Kansas City, Mo., YVCA president David Battey has a treasure trove of stories to tell about the kids he has worked with over the past 10 years.
One of his favorite success stories involves a Kansas City teen ordered by a judge to join the youth corps after being arrested for shoplifting.
Choosing a housing rehabilitation project, the boy worked hard and his talent captured the respect of the other kids, who were unaware of his special circumstances.
He brought his own toolbox every day, worked well with his hands, and found that because he was physically big and strong, he could lift things the others couldn't, Battey says.
"A wonderful relationship developed between this boy and the others on his team; his experience captures the power of an intensive volunteer program," he adds.
"At a time when we need help cleaning our environment, finding safe places for our kids to play, keeping at-risk children in school, we really need great citizens. People who serve others are providing the solutions to our country's problems," says Bill Barret, a spokesman for AmeriCorps, the federal national-service program that helps fund YVCA and some 438 other projects.
Most young people in the VolunTeens-YVCA program still inhabit a realm where a smile can make things better. Program director Leslye Gibbens describes the kind of solutions coming from teens in her corps as "fundamental."
"There are a lot of adults who are insensitive to the needs of others. The mere fact that these kids recognize when a child is unhappy or care to help a child stop crying - that means the door is open. If the kids get the good feelings, there's motivation to do more," she says.
Grandiose solutions were the last thing on 15-year-old Erika McCallister's mind as she colored with a group of kids at the CAWSC Center in Baton Rouge, where she served as a teammate of Nguyen's. When one of the five-year-olds produced a drawing of a broken heart, Erika asked some questions that began to open the door to a mutual bond.
"The girl got spanked a lot at home; she said she didn't like her family. But I talked to her and got a smile," Erika says proudly.