Building Community Through Volunteerism
Volunteerism has been a historic part of American civic life, offering a way for people to reach out and serve others, helping to strengthen and build important ties across communities. The impact of volunteerism cannot be overlooked. Advocates note how volunteering “strengthens the foundation of any neighborhood or community––magnifying the ability to perform good works and contribute to the greater good.” However, according to an article published in 2019, the United states is experiencing an overall decline in volunteerism:
“While the United States recently experienced record highs in total volunteer hours and charitable dollars given to community organizations, these seemingly positive numbers mask a troubling trend: fewer Americans are engaging in their community by volunteering and giving in any time in the recent past.”
Regardless of the various demographic factors examined as explanations for the change in rates of volunteerism, it is always important to continuously encourage community service. A variety of community benefits stem from increased levels of service, which is why it is essential to promote volunteerism starting at the youth level.
Volunteerism not only connects people to the issues facing their community, but also brings people of all different backgrounds together. In the words of author Rachel Naomi Remen, “From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy.” Remen explains how service is not about helping or fixing, but about seeing “the wholeness of another person” and being connected in a “relationship between equals.” Great strength, learning, and wholeness can come from service.
Considering the wide range of issues created and exacerbated by the current pandemic, it is more important than ever to evaluate the role of volunteerism and civic service within the Manchester community. There are a variety of opportunities for community members to get involved in volunteerism in town, helping to support neighbors and fellow locals. One clear example is the Youth Service Bureau, a community-based youth serving agency that works to develop responsible individuals who make positive contributions to the community. Within the Youth Service Bureau is the Manchester Youth Commission, a group of youth collaborating with local government to strengthen the community through the voice of youth.
One of the responsibilities taken on by Youth Commission is the annual Martin Luther King Celebration, in which each public school in town nominates students to receive an award. The event celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and recognizes students who promote positive change in the Manchester community. This upcoming January, the event will be held for the 36th time, although the format will be a little different than usual as it will be conducted virtually.
Several years ago, the Town transitioned away from adult organizers and decided that the event should be led by the Youth Commission. “The best way to inspire young people to get involved is to get young people to do it,” explained Youth Service Coordinator Heather Wlochowski. The few adults that are involved include the Mayor Jay Moran and others from the Board of Education who are invited to speak, as well as Keith Berry, conductor of the jazz band which gives a performance. The rest of the planners, presenters, and speakers are all Youth Commission members.
The keynote speech at this year’s celebration will be given by youth commissioners Alexandra Hamza, a second-year member and junior at Manchester High School, along with Leila Affini. The youth organizers have been hard at work preparing for the event. “In the MLK Planning Committee I have helped find possible quotes to be chosen as our theme. I have also brainstormed ideas with the other committee members about the keynote speech, music and reaching out to other speakers,” said Alexandra. Each year, the annual celebration is centered around a specific Martin Luther King Jr. quote, which acts as the theme for the event.
Eden Lewis, a junior at MHS and first-year member of the Youth Commission also shared her excitement for the event. “It is important to take time to celebrate and recognize students and obviously honor Martin Luther King Jr. and the impact he had on our society,” said Eden. The young organizer has played a role in the planning of the event by acting as a soundboard during meetings and is looking forward to announcing the award for a student from Bowers Elementary School, especially as a former student of the school.
Eden also emphasized how the organization of the event and experience with Youth Commission has allowed for a great learning experience. “I’m grateful that I’m able to contribute and to have this learning experience… I don’t really think about it as volunteering. It’s working with other people to create something important,” explained Eden. Alexandra also noted the opportunities Youth Commission presents. She originally wanted to join the group because of her interest in civic engagement. “I wanted to be more involved in my town and foster connections with other youth,” said Alexandra.
According to Heather Wlochowski, the hard work of the Youth Commission has made this event all the more impactful and one that encourages other young people to get involved with civic service. Many of those who join Youth Commission learned about the opportunity through other students who were prior members. Even the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration is a way to spread the word about the importance of civic engagement and the role of Youth Commission. “Two years ago, one of the youth commissioners said that she had found out about [Youth Commission] because she was receiving an award and was so impressed by the youth commissioners being at the forefront of the event,” said Heather. Evidently, the upcoming MLK Jr. Celebration is one that not only uplifts Manchester youth, but one that also encourages passion for social justice and volunteerism.
For Manchester community groups led by, or intended to benefit, youth in Manchester, the Youth Commission has mini grant applications online for anyone who is seeking funding. More information can be found on the Town of Manchester page under ‘Youth Commission Mini Grants.’