Summer of Service: An American Rite of Passage?

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In many cultures, the transition from childhood into the teen years is marked by a rite of passage in which the young person engages deeply in learning and self-reflection, and takes on new “adult” responsibilities. These rites of passage are a central way that groups of people pass their values, culture and history from generation to generation.

While some young Americans experience such rites as part of their religious or cultural traditions, most do not. In our young country, the establishment of a summer service rite for young Americans of all backgrounds could serve many purposes: teaching the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; helping youth learn about their communities; forging common bonds across economic and ethnic groups through common experiences; and promoting positive development.

Imagine what such a rite might look like. At age 13, when youth leave middle school for high school, they might spend a month engaged in intensive service-learning projects, working in teams led by older youth, young adults or community “elders.” This service would be an expectation but not a requirement. Community groups might offer options that would appeal to a wide range of interests.

Unfortunately, such opportunities are the exception today, not the rule. Despite the pivotal nature of the early teen years, youth-focused investments emphasize problems, not potential. We spend money to tell teens to stay away from drugs, to keep youth offenders off the streets, to discourage teen pregnancy. Yet research and common sense tell us that giving young people something to say “yes” to is an essential part of teaching them to say “no.”

Nowhere is this policy gap more apparent than during the summer. Working families may be hard-pressed to pay for adult supervision for teenagers, but government funding for child care programs focuses on younger age groups. Summer school is often only for those who are struggling, not those who want to expand their horizons. Federal law prohibits young teens from working. AmeriCorps members must be 16, and youth service program funding is limited.

As a result, most young people making the difficult transition from middle school to high school have no organized activities when they are out of school. Many are left unsupervised and at risk.

A universally available “Summer of Service” program would help fill this gap by creating positive alternatives for young teens. Developing a national system to enable all young people to participate in service as a “rite of passage” would be possible, even in a tight economy, if the system were built on the existing infrastructure of service and youth programs. It could be integrated into summer camps, community-based youth organizations, youth corps, AmeriCorps programs or schools interested in service-learning.

Who would benefit? First, youth, who benefit greatly from helping others, but are too often thought of only as recipients of service. When young people see that they can improve the lives of others, they feel able to control their own lives in a positive way by avoiding risk behaviors, strengthening their community connections and becoming more engaged in their own education. And as the young teens make their way through high school, and eventually to college or jobs, where they did their Summer of Service would be a common experience and a defining aspect of their lives.

Second, civic engagement would increase. Service tied to learning that teaches a range of civic actions has been shown to increase knowledge of community needs, commitment to an ethic of service, and understanding of politics and morality.
And finally, communities would benefit. Young teenagers can make a significant contribution if properly trained, organized and supervised. If just one-third of these youth completed a Summer of Service of 100 hours or more, it would generate more than 100 million service hours each year. If even half from that group were inspired by their experiences to serve 100 hours each year into and through adulthood, the impact would be exponential, totaling more than 2.5 billion hours nationwide for each class of students over the next 50 years.

A Summer of Service before high school could become a rite of passage, enabling young people to enter their teenage years with a positive experience that reinforces their connections to their communities, enlivens their education and strengthens their personal and civic values. At the same time, communities across America might find an important new resource in their own backyards: young people who are ready to serve, if only they are asked.

Susan Stroud is executive director of Innovations in Civic Participation, which recently released a report on summer service programs that can be found at Shirley Sagawa is a consultant with sagawa/jospin and the author of the report, and can be reached at