Gazing out of an airplane window over Washington State, 5-year-old Adam Werbach was awestruck by the lush green carpet of the Northwest forest -- so different from his home in Tarzana, California. But then he noticed bare patches in the forest that looked like giant footprints. When he asked his parents if a monster had created them, they explained that the huge brown areas were timber clear-cuts made by big logging companies.
Three years later, his parents showed him a petition they had received in the mail from the Sierra Club. It asked for the resignation of then-President Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, who had frequently belittled environmental issues. Reminded of the clear-cuts he'd seen on the plane, Adam brought the petition to his second-grade class and then went door-to-door with it in his neighborhood. Within a week, he'd gathered 500 signatures -- and Watt did eventually resign.
Encouraged by this early success, Adam formed an environmental club at his middle school and then a national network of concerned teenagers when he was in high school. In 1996, at age 23, he became the Sierra Club's youngest-ever national president.
Although Adam Werbach followed an exceptional path, America's future depends on our raising children who will become "soulful citizens," with the skills, confidence, and commitment to make a difference in the world. For the past 30 years, I've studied why young people do or don't concern themselves with big issues such as homelessness, the environment, and quality education. Most of the time, kids learn to care when the entire family is involved. Children don't always do what you say, but it's amazing how faithfully they'll do what you do.
Of course, we want our children to be compassionate and responsible, but often we don't do volunteer work ourselves because our lives are just too busy. However, the payoff is priceless: Studies have shown that socially active kids do better academically and that volunteering for only one hour a week makes a child 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, or to engage in destructive behavior.
"Bringing a child to a soup kitchen or to clean up a local park is one of the best things a parent can do," says Steven A. Culbertson, president and CEO of Youth Service America, an alliance of more than 200 national and local organizations. "Working mothers, in particular, find volunteering with their kids rewarding because it's a two-for-one experience," he says. "They can spend time with their kids and fulfill their desire to do something for their community at the same time." What your children learn about social commitment -- at 10, 6, or even 4 -- can shape the rest of their lives.