SALT LAKE CITY — Cherise Udell is cooking pasta primavera for a few dozen strangers. Her daughter Sophia, 7, and Sophia's best friend Shae Sorenson, 8, are helping with simple tasks. In a little while, all three will haul the food down to Pioneer Park to feed the people staying in tents as part of the Occupy Salt Lake demonstration.
Sophia and her little sister Ella, 5, have been learning about social change and active participation since they were even smaller. Mom co-founded Utah Moms for Clean Air because she worries about pollution's effects on health, especially on children. Their dad, Kent Udell, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, tackles global projects in a different way. Recently, he emailed photos home from Madagascar, where he'd gone as a volunteer with Engineers without Borders to bring clean water to communities that have none.
The Udells are civic-minded, interested in teaching their children to give and protest and work and volunteer in street-level pursuits. It's a great thing to donate money to a cause. But there's something special about touching the cause with your hands and solving a problem with your action.
It's called "youth engagement," and children and teens can make a big difference in their world through activism, philanthropy and voluntarism, says Adam Fletcher, who a decade ago founded the Freechild Project, based in Olympia, Wash., to celebrate the spectrum of ways in which youths promote social justice, change and caring across America and Canada.
"There are so many young people from different situations economically, educationally and socially who are doing cool, cool things focused on changing the world, from the very local to the international," he says. "I started Freechild to celebrate these things."
Over the course of a century, he notes that children have gone from being passive recipients to being active partners in world change, whether it's the smaller local world or the global playground. And there's never been a better time to harness their enthusiasm to take part.
"Our society is in crisis mode. More things are going wrong than ever before. The social situation, the education situation, the economy — a plethora of things are at a crisis point. The dilemma is that as a society we have ignored or denied (childrens' and teens') ability to solve anything. In reality, it will be them, whether now or in 10 or however many years as adults, who deal with many of the problems."
Schools, youth organizations, civic clubs, churches and others have discovered that they can design opportunities for the young to make a substantial difference, Fletcher says.
Children and teens in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and service clubs, church youth groups and others nationwide are volunteering, tutoring, mentoring other youths, raising money for causes and more. There's now even a public engagement office in the White House and the president has hosted two dozen youth forums.
You don't have to look far to see the variety of ways in which children, including some young ones, are participating. And there seems to be something to engage almost anyone.
San Francisco-based Generation Waking Up, for instance, focuses on helping youth lead a cultural effort to build sustainability. Its website seems to take the task very seriously: "A new generation of young people is waking up. We are the middle children of History, coming of age at the crossroads of civilization, a generation rising between an old world dying and a new world being born. We are the 'make-it or break-it' generation, the 'all-or-nothing' generation, the crucible through which civilization must pass or crash."
The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), out of New York City, is networking education organizations in a "youth-driven fashion."
Manateens, in Florida, are trying to save the manatees. Seattle has the Seattle Young People's Project that picks different activities and causes. The list is long.
It doesn't have to be altruistic to matter, notes Fletcher. He talks about a fifth-grade Utah class that lobbied the school board for a library and got it. They weren't the only beneficiaries. Actions can be self-interested and local or very global and gigantic. They can help kids starving in Somalia or provide company for a lonely senior. It all matters.
Activism is hard to quantify. Volunteer efforts are a little easier to count. Agencies that benefit from volunteers are accustomed to tracking volunteer hours. And even that misses a lot — like the families that play chess at a nursing home because they want to. Or the young man who routinely shovels snow for a neighbor because it needs doing. Or a church youth group that makes quilts for a children's hospital.
Still, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University (www.civicyouth.org) says voluntarism among Americans of high-school age peaked in 2005 at 33 percent, but then dropped to less than 29 percent for four years, when the most recent figures were calculated. That may be "a cause for some concern because it may mean that high schools may not be offering opportunities for students to serve at the same rate as they once did or that there are fewer places in the communities for youth to serve," CIRCLE said in a fact sheet about youth volunteering over the last decade.
"I take my sons, Jess, 14, and Eric, 9, with me when I teach literacy," says Julie Bellows of Wichita, Kan. "I am the volunteer of record, I guess. But I'm teaching a 32-year-old mom who can barely read and they are a huge help with her kids, who are 4 and 7. I think they contribute as much as I do. And I want them to see their mom doing, not just disappearing for a few hours each week. And I want them to do, as well.
"I believe they will remember that we reached out as a family. And when I'm gone, they'll still be doers, not just talkers."
Sophia and Ella Udell see mom cook for or do the laundry of the people sleeping in tents. They attend an occasional rally with her. And beforehand, she talks at the girls' levels about why they are doing whatever it is. They also as a family "foster" kittens, which is particularly appealing to Sophia and Ella.
Cherise Udell has taken them to feed the hungry and says she coaches them gently about making eye contact with homeless people and treating them like everyone else. She wants them to be compassionate — and willing to jump in when they see a need.
"It's extremely important to me," she says. "I do what I do because I am passionately inspired to do it."
She hopes they'll feel as passionate about whatever they choose as their own causes or programs throughout their lives.
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