A Service Summer ‘Un-brats’ Kids

Self-involved teens become people who care

by Maureen Mackey | Updated 14 Jul 2015 at 8:31 PM

Many American teens are right now bucking a longtime summer tradition.

While their peers sweat it out at nature camps, sports camps, science camps, and more, a number of forward-looking young people are doing for others, not just themselves.

They’re attending camps that teach community service. Guided by dedicated mentors and teachers, the kids learn how to plan and lead projects that will make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Turns out it’s not only charitable and kind, it’s really, really smart. In his book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton, cites studies showing that people who donate time and effort to others achieve more success in the long run than those who don’t.

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“Our camp teaches leadership to kids who have an interest in doing service projects,” said Bill Gallagher, president and founder of Spark the Wave, which runs two lively summer camp sessions every July called Wave Week. “It gives kids valuable hands-on training and team-building skills so they can see a problem, build a project, and take it to its incredible end. The teens go back to their communities and accomplish their goals.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the service activities hatched at Spark the Wave:

  • A group of teens created a series of “sandwich days” during which high school students make and donate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to people in need. Last year, the group made nearly 850 sandwiches for their D.C. neighbors.
  • A group of campers hosted a community festival to raise money for the Toys for Tots program. The teens raised $1,525 and collected 170 toys.
  • Three campers started an indoor garden club to promote healthier eating by high school students. The campers received a $250 grant from their school to make it happen.

Founded more than 10 years ago, the Wave Week summer camp includes team-building activities like baseball games, dances, and volleyball tournaments — mixing in healthy exercise with all that service. The camp is held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, and costs $599-$899 per week to attend.

“Teenagers can get a bad rap. But when people thank you at a food drive for what you’ve done, that’s the best thing.”

Most kids have no idea how to make a service project happen once they dream it up, Gallagher said.

“Teenagers can get a bad rap,” adds Madison Hartzell, a former Wave Week camper. “But when people come up to you at a food drive to thank you for what you’ve done — that’s the best thing."

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Gallagher said his service work with teens “grew out of a strong sense of service and giving back that I got from my parents when I was young."

"At 16 years old I attended a leadership camp at the Red Cross, and that really inspired me to go out and serve other people — to get beyond a kind of griping teenage kid persona and do things for others," he said. "I found I could make a positive impact in the lives of others.”

It has now impacted 20,000 young people and 100,000 community members.

Spark the Wave is his dream writ large. The group worked with 39 kids its first year. Last year, it worked with more than 1,500.

“Service is the first area in which young people can make a real impact,” said Gallagher, who is also a physician and teaches at Georgetown University. “It’ll be a long time before they can win political office or run a company, but they can do something close to home and change the world for the better.”

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