At exactly 8:30 a.m. every weekday morning, a large contingent of well-organized young adults lines up in front of Philadelphia's City Hall in preparation for their morning regimen.
Clad in identical uniforms and sweating profusely after completing their morning calisthenics, the 175 members of the regiment collectively anticipate the day ahead.
Although in many ways they resemble a division of the U.S. Marines preparing for a day of working to defend the country, these young Americans belong to an entirely different type of corps. They are civilian volunteer members of City Year Philadelphia -- an AmeriCorps youth service program -- who are preparing for a day of working to safeguard Philadelphians from the challenges of urban life.
From their opening exercises at City Hall, the group fans out over the city to 19 Philadelphia public schools. The volunteers work daily with students, teaching, mentoring and planning community projects.
The corps teaches children about the gravity of a number of urban social issues, including violence, AIDS and racism. They simultaneously seek to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility and demonstrate the benefits of social action.
As an urban division of AmeriCorps, the domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, City Year's chief goal is to develop democracy and improve communities using the tools of service and social action. The organization hopes to lay the foundation for an activist, multifaceted approach to improving urban neighborhoods in 15 cities across the country by volunteering and inspiring residents to do the same.
"City Year is not a think tank. We are an action tank," said Sean Holleran, co-executive director of City Year Philadelphia. "Instead of having people sit around and discuss policies to help out urban areas, we take a more proactive approach by showing policy in action, in hopes that both citizens and local, state and federal governments will do the same."
Unlike many civic engagement programs that emphasize direct, project-based communal involvement, City Year places more of its focus upon education, to try to generate positive change from within communities themselves.
When City Year was established in 1988, founders decided that they could be more effective in improving communities by educating and training others -- particularly children -- to be leaders and take a proactive role in civic involvement.
The program has served 40,000 Philadelphia children since its local inception in 1996.
"We do have a direct project component, but our bigger goal is to inspire the public around us," Holleran said. "We want to expose community members, especially young people, to urban issues and show them that they do have the power to affect those issues and make a difference. Our ultimate goal is to inspire others to become active."
Equally vital to the program is its leadership component, through which City Year attempts to provide character development, college counseling and career awareness for high school students. Organizers hope that students will become leaders in the future.
"We try to develop leadership qualities in the kids and help them to create their own service programs, so they can engage and give back to their own communities," said Penn alumnus Neil Batiancila, a former City Year Philadelphia participant and current operations director.
But the breadth of the City Year programs is matched by the diversity of the 17- to 24-year-old participants themselves -- who, according to program officials, truly come from all walks of life.
"We have volunteers from every racial, socioeconomic, educational and religious background," Holleran said. "We look for diversity in our applicants, because it helps to break down the social barriers of both corps members themselves and those they work with in the community. We pride ourselves on the fact that we are one of the few places where you can find someone who just got their [general equivalency diploma] working alongside an Ivy League graduate."
Equally diverse are the reasons that the volunteers have decided to join the program. For some, City Year is merely a resume-builder or a step on the path toward graduate school. However, for most, the program is a way to give back to local communities and help to improve inner-city areas.
"City Year is probably unlike any other experience you get in the real world," Batiancila said. "I had so much energy and wanted to give back, but I wasn't quite sure how to do it. City Year gave me a lot of direction and helped me understand how I could make a difference."
For most City Year participants, the rewards of working for one year to make a difference in a city are more than enough to warrant sacrificing a regular salary, accepting instead the program's $165 weekly stipend and modest award to be used toward future education.
"Being a City Year volunteer is a struggle," Holleran said. "It involves a lot of Ramen noodles and plain pasta, but the cost is insignificant in contrast to the reward of touching the life of a kid and improving the community."Comments powered by Disqus
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