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'Kids can’t learn on an empty spirit. They need inspiration and direction.'

Derek V. Smith is the founder of GivingPoint, a nonprofit organization that helps young people discover their passions and make a difference in their communities.

I thought this was a good topic for Thanksgiving.

By Derek V. Smith

Community service shouldn’t be an obligation. It should be a joy. And the only way to make it joyful is to make it relevant.

We spend copious amounts of time and money helping our children discover and develop their interest in a wide range of activities, from academics to the arts to sports. We encourage them to try music, art and dance, and we pay for equipment and weekly lessons in the one we hope they’ll love. We encourage them to play every sport the local little league offers to find the one that fits with their physical talents and interests.

What about kids who want to make a difference in the world? What resources exist for them to discover the social issues they’re most passionate about, and second to act on that passion to make a real impact on their communities?

When I sold my company in 2008 and shifted my attention to philanthropy, I wanted my children to be involved. In discussing what causes excited them, however, I realized there was a void in educating teens about charitable opportunities and connecting them with organizations and issues they truly cared about.

They’d been involved in all kinds of charitable initiatives, from Habitat for Humanity to the Innocence Project and many things related to their schools and church, but it turned out those were causes I cared about, or that their mom cared about, or that their friends cared about. Our family had never made it a priority to help our children figure out what issues and causes they cared about, or give them the tools and guidance they needed to turn those passions into action.

This oversight afflicts much of our society’s approach to youth volunteerism. We encourage and expect young people to be involved in community service, but it’s often framed in the context of an obligation or requirement we choose. High school students in Atlanta, for example, are required to complete 75 hours of community service before they can graduate.

Deep down inside each of us is a spark that reflects the basic human need to connect to something greater than ourselves. Our challenge is to find it. That’s not easy to do, but it has a transformative effect, especially on young people who have their whole lives ahead of them.

Those of us with the experiences and the resources to offer have an obligation to help young people explore themselves so they can learn what they’re passionate about, and to create opportunities that expose them to different aspects of the human condition, different charitable and philanthropic environments where they can learn and grow and be touched by what’s going on in the world.

This will look different for different people. In my case, it meant launching GivingPoint, a nonprofit organization that provides students with an interest in philanthropy with the resources and tools I wish I’d provided to my kids when they were growing up. For others it might mean mentoring a student and fostering their interest in charitable work, donating time to share expertise with young people looking for ways to get involved in their communities, or providing financial support to groups that connect young people with the world around them.

After two decades in philanthropy, there’s one thing that has become iron logic to me: Kids can’t learn on an empty spirit. They need inspiration and direction. And there’s no better place to start than in their own communities.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.