Good Works

City Year Running Strong

Betsy Lawson writer

When they were roommates at Harvard in the 1980s, Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, like many bright, idealistic college students, dreamed of changing the world. But rather than quixotic fancy, the pair set to work on identifying concrete actions that could make an immediate and tangible difference in the lives of others.

They recognized that national service programs like Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and the Peace Corps had the power to tap the idealism of young people and the potential to bring together diverse communities. So they created their own volunteer service program in Boston designed to unite young people for one year, and called it “City Year.”

From a 50-person pilot in 1988, City Year now runs in 19 US cities and opened its first international site in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2005. City Year has graduated more than 12,000 alumni, provided more than 20 million hours of volunteer work, and engaged more than one million citizens in service.
City Year corps members–diverse young leaders between the ages of 17 and 24–spend their year as tutors, mentors, and role models. A corps member might work in a public school, run a leadership development program for middle and high school students, or plan and carry out neighborhood beautification projects with community volunteers.

For all its growth and success, however, the City Year model still operates on the belief that individuals can make a difference no matter what age, ability, or economic bracket–individuals like 14-year-old Annie Jones of Weston.

Three Saturdays a month from January through May last year, Jones learned about social justice and community issues at City Year’s headquarters in Boston as part of the “Young Heroes” program for middle schoolers. But the real classroom, Jones said, was out in the community. Together with her team, Jones served meals at a homeless shelter, spent time at a senior center, and performed other service work that brought her into contact with a host of new people.

“It’s a terrific learning experience about what’s out there,” Jones says. And even though she has lots of schooling still ahead, Jones says she sees social work as a possible career path. For now, though, she’ll continue participating in City Year service events with her parents Michael, and Beth, who have both been active in the organization for years.

“It’s a real melting pot of kids who participate in the corps,” says Beth Jones, who currently serves on City Year Boston’s advisory board. “Volunteers from the suburbs often take away as much–or more–from their service experience as those they are helping.”

City Year Boston Executive Director Sandra Burke agrees that one of the keys to its success has been that the giving goes both ways. “The growth and development in each corps member is remarkably visible in their maturity, empathy, and commitment to communities for change. My two daughters served with City Year and I witnessed their transformation firsthand. They leave the program as leaders for life.”

A ‘Gap’ Year of Service
While, in the past, parents may have feared that young people taking time off before college would lose momentum in their academic careers, now the reverse seems more accurate, says Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admission at Wellesley College.

Many high schoolers have been so focused on excelling academically, athletically, and in extra curriculars, that a “gap year” before college can allow time to replenish their energies, Desjarlais says. The time can also allow for other important parts of themselves to emerge and develop, be it through study abroad, an internship, or community service.
Desjarlais cautions those volunteering with an organization — be it a national program like City Year or a community theater close to home — to be sure it is well run with clearly defined responsibilities and expectations.

They should also complete the regular college admission process during their senior year when they have greater access to the necessary paperwork, entrance exams, college interviews, and the like. Upon acceptance, Wellesley College — and many of its peer institutions — allow students to defer enrolling for a year.

Desjarlais says that, for the most part, the students she’s interviewed who are interested in a gap year have a very well-thought out plan of what they hope to achieve through that experience. When they arrive on campus the following year, she says that they’re “more prepared to engage in [their studies in] a deeper way.”

Such was the case for siblings Rick and Elizabeth Maynard of Wellesley. Rick worked as a corps member at Timilty Middle School in Roxbury after he graduated high school. He’s now an undergraduate at Wesleyan. Elizabeth, on the other hand, graduated from Trinity College in Hartford before opting for her year of service.

“I’ve had an interest in urban education and City Year seemed like a good place to learn more about it,” she said of her decision to delay graduate school. Elizabeth was placed as senior corps member in the External Affairs department in Boston and worked on a variety of tasks including alumni relations, media outreach, and engaging potential volunteers and supporters through the visitor program.

“My favorite part of the year, however, was getting out of the office and leading a group of kids during the school vacation programs,” Elizabeth says, an experience she took with her to Teachers College at Columbia University where she is currently enrolled in the masters program in elementary education. She adds: “I would recommend City Year to anyone looking to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”