Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic--and Required Service

How is mandatory gym class like helping others? Answer: Studies show that regular service to others also improves student health, and some school districts are adding community service to their curricula alongside phys. ed.

Research conducted by this author in 1991 involving 3,300 volunteers across the country, as well as a federal government survey of senior citizen volunteers and a Cornell University study of the health of working women, have revealed a direct link between helping others and enhanced emotional health. For example, among weekly volunteers who had a personal relationship with those they assisted, from 60 to 85 percent reported sharp increases in self-esteem and reduced stress.

Low self-worth is not only an indication of poor emotional health but also one of the research-identified factors involved in young people dropping out of school, using drugs, committing violent acts, and becoming pregnant. Self-esteem grows when someone experiences positive responses from others. Not every young person can receive praise for being a gifted student, a wonderful athlete, good looking, or a great dresser. But just about any student, including those with disabilities, can succeed at helping someone else--and receive good feelings in return.

Studies show that such service needs to be done continuously and frequently--for about two hours each week--so that the self-worth-enhancing feelings received from others are experienced regularly. But most students will not take on such an obligation--unless required by their schools. This has led to the controversial school-mandated service programs.

Few students volunteer to help others after school or on weekends because it places them at a time disadvantage with other students for playing sports, having a job, socializing, or studying. Only the most self-assured youth raise their hands to be with people who are different and do something they have never before attempted.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1993
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