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How to Make a Difference in Your Rustbelt Hometown

You know the saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”? The same goes for the youth in small towns and local events. As we identified in our Request for Proposals, every northeastern small city seems to experience the same issue: they may be able to host events for teens, however teenage apathy takes precedence over efforts to get them active in their communities. The root of this issue lies in the disconnect between youth and adults, since teens that can make a difference in their communities aren’t being effectively communicated with by the adults who are trying to revitalize rural America.

The moment that someone mentions “helping the community” or “making a difference in your area,” many people’s minds (particularly youth) jump to community service, and often that train of thought stops at the most traditional variants of service. I understand that feeding the homeless may not be everyone’s cup of soup, and I’m not suggesting that it (or other service projects like it) is the approach needed to change a community. Take a look at Johnstown, Pa., for example. Here we have a town knocked down by multiple floods before it was abandoned by the steel industry, which it grew around after its last rebuild. The all-too-familiar phrase of “there’s nothing to do here” (which is often uttered in the whiniest tone imaginable) is thrown around probably more often than “hello, how are you?” What teens and young adults around here fail to realize is that there are great people really fighting to create things to be enjoyed while they sit there complaining like old men on porch rocking chairs.

It’s not that there isn’t anything to do; it’s that you have to keep an open mind. For example, this summer did you complain that it was too hot outside or did you go out and try coal tubing? (Did you even know that you could float down the Stonycreek River on a tube, get a tan, and do it with friends for some nice conversation as you float along?) There has been a vast transformation in our local rivers now that the byproducts of mining and steel mills have been cleaned out, and they’re now clean enough to safely ride down.) Or now that the weather is turning, give things like Open Mic Night at the Venue of Merging Arts (VOMA) a chance. There are also bands performing at VOMA quite often. When you go out and involve yourself in the events going on around you, it does wonders for your community. You’re helping local business, you’re supporting local organizations and artists, and you’re helping the events themselves to be successful.

If you still want to volunteer, though, all you have to do is ask. Several organizations reached out to us as Community Foundation interns to help them with different projects, but our summer schedule filled up so quickly we couldn’t help them all. For example, if you like helping other kids you could mentor a child through Outdoor Odyssey or the Goodwill GoodGuides program.

Do some digging with your Google shovel – the possibilities are endless. Youth programs could always use volunteers to assist in their efforts, as could countless other types of community service organizations. Look around online or even visit local locations; it never hurts to ask.

— Dan Klein, CFA Youth Philanthropy Intern

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