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Make Giving Back a Positive Experience for Our Youth

by on July 02, 2019 4:45 AM


We are a generous people here in Happy Valley and the Centre Region. We have a large number of nonprofit organizations in the area, and philanthropic giving and service is the norm for many of us.

One benchmark of this generosity would be the amount of money our local United Way raises every year. The Centre County United Way's latest campaign raised $1,917,834 – out of a population of 162,660 people in Centre County. That means the average donation from every woman, man and child in the county was $11.79.

Compare that to the Lycoming County United Way which raised $1,314,350 in donations during a recent annual campaign from a population of 160,723 people in Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga counties. That averages out to a very respectable $8.18 raised per person, but Centre County raised 44% more per person.

Or compare that to a very urban area within our state. The Philadelphia United Way raised $34,351,320 from 4.5 million across Philadelphia and southern New Jersey in its most recently published campaign total. A very impressive $7.86 average from every person in their service area. But Centre County raised 50% more.

And how about this benchmark of generosity: In two days one of the greatest fireworks displays in the country will be set off right here in Happy Valley. It’s an amazing feat of logistics and event coordination that is an all-volunteer effort. Yes, that’s right – everything done by the 4th Fest committee, staff and more than 600 workers is done out of the goodness of their hearts. The production that has been rated among the top five fireworks shows in the United States and sets off up to 12,000 shells during its 45-minute show is all volunteer organized. Talk about benevolence.

Then one week later comes the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. A multi-day extravaganza of art and music and food that is in its 52nd year and uses more than 500 volunteers in downtown State College and on campus to become a reality. It’s a reality so big that it spawned the People’s Choice Festival in Boalsburg, which focuses exclusively on Pennsylvania crafts and entertainers, is in its 27th year, and also uses dozens of volunteers to make it work. Between the two festivals they will attract well over 125,000 people to Happy Valley and utilize an army of volunteers – an army who help because they want to and enjoy it. Oh, and the People’s Choice volunteers get a cinnamon bun coupon!

It’s almost as if there’s some magical “giving back” serum in the water here in Happy Valley.

Except, in this land of compassion even the most well-intentioned plans can sometimes go slightly awry — which is why I’m hoping that the State College Area School District might reconsider a policy they have for every high school student.

SCASD has a graduation requirement of 20 hours of community service for every high school student. I know, on its face it seems very innocuous, and given the aforementioned generosity rampant in State College it would appear to be something easily accomplished by every student.

It’s just that in this land of giving plenty, it’s a terribly negative reinforcement. 

The page on the district website explaining this graduation requirement contains 12 bullet points of guidelines the community service must meet. Seven of those bullet points contain the word “not.” In three instances the word NOT is capitalized, and in two of those instances it’s also in boldface. That’s a lot of negative language for something that should be positive.

In addition, “community service hours” are what you can get sentenced to when you commit a crime. Judges use those as a punishment for people who have done something bad. Are we then “sentencing” every one of our high school students to community service? And what’s the consequence? Simple: If they don’t complete it then they don’t graduate. We’re forcing them to help people.

As someone who has worked in the nonprofit industry for more than two decades I can tell you the type of volunteer I don’t want: someone who is being forced to volunteer. Yes, there are always going to be stories of that person who was sentenced to community service who had an epiphany or life-changing experience helping people, but in my experience those are rare. The best volunteers are people who are excited about the opportunity to help in whatever way they can, and are doing it because they want to.

And it’s even better in groups. People who join service clubs or athletic squads that volunteer as a normal part of their existence make great charitable helpers. Penn State clubs and sports teams are wonderful at this.

This is why I would like to see the State College Area School District adjust this policy. While well-intentioned, it’s been governmentalized into a bastion of negativity. Yes, we all value and encourage service to others, but that service has to come from the heart or it’s meaningless. Instead of negatively reinforcing volunteer service – do it or you will NOT graduate – how about we positively reinforce those who do give of their time to help others?

First, let’s stop calling them “community service hours.” That has too much of a connection to the criminal justice system. Then let’s give the students who volunteer for a certain number of hours an honor. It seems “cords” are all the rage at graduation these days – how about a nicely colored cord for those who volunteer? And third, let’s cut way back on the restrictions as to what qualifies as volunteering, especially the one disallowing parents from signing the form vouching for the children’s volunteer work. As someone who works for a nonprofit – and there are many of us in Happy Valley – I would have been proud to sign my child’s form, and was offended that I could not.

We’re a generous people here in Happy Valley. Let’s get our youth started on that benevolent tradition in a positively focused way.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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