Inspiring Young People About Civic Engagement

Why did I get involved in volunteering? How did I decide to work in a nonprofit? What motivates me in my job? These were some of the questions asked of me by rising high school seniors in a leadership class I co-taught with one of our community's leading citizens today.

I don't know if my answers resonated, as kids of this age don't exactly jump up and down with excitement. Those of you who volunteer or work in nonprofits can tell me if my answer resonnates with your experience and observations.

In my work, I consult with a lot of people in their 50's, 60's and 70's, and I find them becoming reflective. They are less concerned with their children, who by now are supporting their own families. Focus shifts inward and toward making the most of their remaining time on this planet. Their primary concern changes from, "How can I acquire the things I most want?" The question is now, "What difference will my life have made?"

Just as we plan all of our working lives for retirement, we need to plan to address this question. I submitted to my class that it is the time we spend throughout our lives volunteering, giving and serving others that provides insight into the value of one's life.

In the ideal case, through trial and error we will have found our passion. It may be delivering food for Meals on Wheels, volunteering at a museum, leading tours of the historic district, mentoring students, serving on nonprofit boards or simply giving to favorite causes. Retirement may provide an opportunity to build on the beginnings we make during our working years, leading to self-satisfaction and providing a great example for children and grandchildren, as well as to society.

I find it interesting to think about the continuum of civilization over millennia. People contribute unevenly to the progress of society. Some people instigate great changes in thinking, science and technology, art and culture. Some people make a difference on a smaller scale and contribute importantly to the quality of life for their communities. Some people seem never to add to society, either due to misfortune, difficult circumstances or bad choices. Although I would argue that these seemingly less productive people perform an important function as the counterweight to the doers. Without evil we would not appreciate good; without need we would not appreciate giving; without misfortune we would not appreciate opportunity.

I hope some of these young leaders will take the time to achieve balance in their lives. Have they set aside time from family, work and recreation to help someone else? Spending just two to five hours a week at these selfless pursuits during their youth may lead them to answers for life's challenging questions. It may lead them to provide identifiable value to society and to satisfaction in a life well lived.

Robert Thalhimer

Posted at 1:00 AM, Jul 17, 2008 in Youth | Permalink | Comment