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Something Greater than Themselves

City Year graduates from all walks of life continue to live City Year’s motto around the country, “putting idealism to work."

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This story is an excerpt from Stone Soup for the World: Life Changing Stories of Everyday People.

Told by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

As a young boy growing up in Boston, Herman didn’t have much hope. Living in a broken and abusive home, he was short on love or support. His backyard was a vacant lot where he played with his friends amid broken bottles and trash. He hadn’t yet imagined that one day he’d be one in a chain of people linking hope for young people through cities across America.

It all started one afternoon when Herman was playing outside with his friends. A dozen young people wearing bright red jackets suddenly appeared, and to his surprise, they began to clean up the vacant lot. They were still hard at work that evening when he went home, wondering why they all had “City Year” written across their backs.

When Herman returned the next day, he was amazed. He had never seen any- thing so wonderful happen in his neighborhood before. Not only was the lot completely clean, but the young people were building a playground! For Herman, it was a magical day.

Several years later, City Year brought more magic to Herman’s life. It was his first day of middle school, and he was nervous, wondering whether or not he’d fit in. As he turned the corner to enter his classroom, one of those familiar red jackets flashed in front of him. Khary, a City Year corps member, was there to assist Herman’s teacher. When Khary smiled at him, Herman knew things would be just fine. And for a while they were. Khary was funny and warm and gave Herman lots of one-on-one attention. And when Herman decided to enter the Boston public schools’ oratorical competition, an entire City Year team coached him. They were as proud as he was when he actually won!

However, through the years, the encouragement Herman received from City Year volunteers wasn’t enough to combat all the things working against him. He fell behind in school, failed the eleventh grade, and eventually dropped out. He was near despair when a guidance counselor suggested that he join the Boston corps. City Year, he was told, took committed young people of all backgrounds, even high-school dropouts, as long as they agreed to try to get their GEDs. He was thrilled when he was accepted into the program, and so began to turn his life around.

City Year hatched in 1978 in a dorm room shared by two Harvard freshmen, Michael Brown and Alan Khazei. The roommates soon became best friends, and each night they would stay up late, making passionate plans to solve their country’s problems. In school, they learned how President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps helped pull America out of the Depression of the 1930s. They studied the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Corps, which had brought people together in the 1960s. They worried especially about the lives of inner-city kids.

Michael and Alan wanted to change the world as their heroes—Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and President Kennedy, had done. Like them, young Michael and Alan dreamed of leading people, especially young ones, into service, into something greater than themselves. In the summer of 1988, their for- mal education complete, they started City Year with thirty young people and a long list of community projects.

Today, clad in uniforms of khaki pants, white shirts, and those bright red jackets, more than seven hundred City Year graduates from all walks of life continue to live City Year’s motto around the country,“putting idealism to work,” serving inner-city neighborhoods, boosting the lives of kids like Herman with a little more love and support. Since its inception in 1988, City Year corps members have charged and recharged with the love and support they get back.

In 1993, President Clinton used City Year as a model for his national service
program, AmeriCorps. Every year, thousands of adults join these dedicated young people in Serve-a-Thons, giving a day of their own time to work on special community projects.

With his City Year team, Herman worked with handicapped children at an elementary school in Boston. He became another of the multiplying links in the chain of national service, from Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Mar- tin Luther King Jr. to Michael, Khary, and now Herman. He learned that what might seem small steps to others are leaps and bounds for “his” kids. Helping them learn to read, paint, and accomplish other new things makes him happy, and happiness charged his life. He earned his GED and received financial aid to go to college. Like the ripple effect when a pebble drops into a pool of water, City Year’s work goes far beyond good deeds done today. City Year workers help the Hermans of this world, so that they too expand to something greater than themselves.

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the life of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy, build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert F. Kennedy

If you’re between seventeen and twenty-four years of age, and want to give a year of your life to help public schools and urban neighborhoods, or if your company is looking for ways to change communities by producing leaders to engage in service projects, visit www.cityyear.org.

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