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Young and giving: Service learning is becoming a way of life for some students

"Kids these days," every generation says, sometimes with a dismayed roll of the eyes. We hear about social phenomena such as the MySpace universe, cell-phone ubiquity and the flavor-of-the-month in scandalous teen fashion. But the stereotype of teenagers as self-absorbed hedonists needs a retake.

A philanthropy movement is afoot among young people. For every parent in Los Altos who drives a Lexus, there may be a child actively participating in community service. Some service projects are inspired and initiated by youth, but schools across the nation have taken steps in recent years to mandate service learning as part of a well-rounded education. What starts as a school community service day blossoms, for some students, into a longer-term commitment to social awareness and philanthropy.

Students "want to make a difference in people's lives, whether global in nature or closer to home," said Pinewood School President Scott Riches. He has seen the school's one-day community service projects spark a continuing interest in some students.

"Once they started digging in and doing it, they felt really good about what they're doing," he said.

Riches is one of the advisers to the Youth Venture Philanthropy Board, nine young people organized through the Los Altos Community Foundation. In an appropriately Silicon Valley fashion, the students form a board that solicits and evaluates grant applications for the program's $10,000 in seed money from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Many enterprising philanthropists in Los Altos are learning at a young age how to leverage the privilege of their community's affluence. Los Altos seventh-grader Jordana Lilly, for instance, raised more than $8,600 for child refugees in Darfur, Sudan, by way of a well-marketed community art auction last January.

"I learned about (the situation in Darfur) from religious school friends and just started hearing about it everywhere," Lilly said. "I tried out a few causes, and this one looked like the best non-profit - it gave the money to places I wanted it to go, like food and water and protection."

Complex moral and philosophical arguments don't typically drive these efforts. Most budding philanthropists talk about the visceral pleasure of doing something helpful.

"It just seems like everyone should do their part," Lilly said. "I kept a positive attitude, and hoped, and got people involved."

"Some people experience it as a chore - it depends on what you do, if you do something fun and take your interests and put them to use," said Los Altos seventh-grader Taylor Smith-Hams, who spent last summer painting pieces for an art show to fund Polar Bear International, an anti-global-warming effort.

"I don't think it's purposeful, but because this area is so fast-paced, it's easy to get busy with things," Riches said of Valley culture. "But on the contrary, affluence in the area makes people able to give back, and have time to give."

Stewart Wobber, a philanthropic veteran who founded the local Interfaith Network for Community Help, has helped his granddaughter's Girl Scout troop connect with a community agency for young women of a similar age in East Palo Alto.

He sees the refinement of a social conscience as a big part of growing up.

"The girls ask, 'Why don't these rich people care?' There is an interest there," he said.

Meeting the peers for whom they have been collecting donations is an integral part of the experience.

"It's a gift to be able to give," Wobber said. "To make a difference in a person's life, and also see the story that goes with it - they'll know what they're collecting for."

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