As we find ourselves in the midst of the season of giving once again, I am reminded of something I have struggled with for years. Despite the significant benefits their charitable works produce, I regret the fact that a significant portion of teens who participate in community service might not have their hearts set in the right place. In middle school, leadership held school-wide class competitions, rewarding winning classes with pizza or Jamba Juice for collecting the most canned goods for the Thanksgiving food drive or donations for the leukemia fund. Students who were part of the school's community service group were rewarded with off-campus lunches or amusement park trips. In high school, students rush to join organizations like National Honor Society, Key Club, and the California Scholarship Federation - popular service-based groups on local campuses where students receive points for participating in community service events. However, many do so with the intention of having one more club or activity to add to their college resume.
So, do the extrinsic incentives offered for good works somehow negate the good of the service given? And if so, how much does it really matter? After all, the person on the other end still receives the benefit of the action. Still, I am saddened by the reality that internal motivation does not drive a significant portion of community service. By offering material compensation for good actions, kids are stripped of the ability to reap the fulfilling intrinsic rewards that come with helping others. In a sense, the joy of giving has been replaced with material objects. Our society is breeding a generation of kids who rely on external motivation and rewards. As the current youth grow older, and material compensation is no longer provided for charitable service, what happens to this drive to serve? I must assume that in many, it disappears altogether.
John Wilson, a senior at SRVHS disagrees.
"I wish people didn't need rewards to do community service, but I think charitable work is important enough that if rewards are necessary, they should be used," said Wilson, who is an active member of Key Club International. "Rewards don't undo the good of the work, because those who receive the benefits of community service don't care about the motives of the individuals who help them. The work is still good even if what's behind it isn't.
"I personally joined Key Club because I felt that I needed to have ties to a community service organization for college," he continued. "I think the majority of teens serve because of that little box on their college applications that says: 'Please list all the community service opportunities you have taken advantage of through out high school.'"
Senior Ellen Murphy, a member of Interact, Key Club, and Leadership at SRVHS gives teens more credit.
"I think teens become involved in community service out of the goodness of their hearts," she said. "Everyone knows it feels good to help someone else. I personally feel a great sense of satisfaction in helping other people. As far as rewards go, it obviously gives the giver more personal satisfaction to know they did a selfless act of charity rather than one for which they were rewarded. Still, rewards don't necessarily negate acts of charity; maybe they just diminish its self-fulfilling value."
Amanda Swenson, an SRVHS junior and participant in several different community service activities, had an alternate take on the subject.
"Perhaps the majority of teens, especially in affluent communities, are driven to participate in community service by a desire to gain social acceptance, and by pressure to be a 'good' child," she said. "However, teens can also be motivated by the social aspects of involvement in service organizations, or by the desire to share a passion they have with the larger community."
I can relate to this drive to share my passions and talents to others through service. As a piano player of 10 years, I have found my niche in the community playing a repertoire for various local nursing homes and care centers. The ability to use my talent for a greater good and to share something I am so passionate about with the broader community probably brings me more joy than it does my audiences.
For whatever reason teens choose to serve, I suppose it is for the best. Maybe doing community service during adolescence (even if for some external reason or reward) sets in place the habit of serving that lasts a lifetime. Serving the community and helping others gives individuals a sense of responsibility, purpose and the feeling of being needed by somebody - a feeling we all need to keep our sanity.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.