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Bucking national trends, local organizations witness OKC youth volunteerism rise



It isn't really all that surprising anymore to read that Oklahoma City has bucked a national trend, but here's a new one to add to the list: volunteering.


On a national scale, Americans have always been generous with their time and talent. According to the Volunteering in America study released in July of this year by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 60.8 million Americans " or 26.2 percent " volunteered their time in 2007, a total of 8.1 billion hours.

Of that national average, according to the study, the Southern region, which includes Oklahoma, volunteers a bit less, about 24.7 percent. And from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of young volunteers, those between 25 and 34 years of age, consistently has dropped each year from 2003 to 2007 to 22.6 percent, according to a 2007 release.

Yet Oklahoma City defies these trends. It was listed as one of the five large cities with the greatest increase in volunteer rates between 2004 and 2007, according to the Volunteering in America study. Furthermore, the metro leads the large cities for its rate of college volunteers " 47.4 percent versus the national rate of 27.4 percent.

Oklahoma City comes in at No. 11 in the ranking of large city volunteer rates, with 32.1 percent of the population giving their time, according to the study. OKC has 324,000 volunteers serving 41.1 million hours per year. This donation of time equals an estimated economic contribution of $801 million.

That's a lot of numbers and a whole lot of money, but here in the city it has a very real face and that face is decidedly youthful.

Kim Haywood, the chief operating officer for deadCENTER Film Festival, has noticed more young people getting involved.

The organization, which only has two paid employees, depends largely on volunteers to keep things running smoothly. This equals volunteers to staff the annual deadCENTER Film Festival, create programs, staff special events and run the 10 committees.

"A committee head may put in hundreds of hours of work," Haywood said.

Haywood has seen a high rate of young volunteers seek to fill these positions, especially college-aged people. She said the organization accepts all volunteers over the age of 16 and has had many people younger than that ask to volunteer. She'll let them as long as they're accompanied by a parent.

"deadCENTER is an awesome networking opportunity and a chance to meet other young filmmakers, artists and fans," she said.

One of the dedicated young volunteers she has worked with since she's been with deadCENTER is Jenan El-Bakoush, a 28-year-old who works in the public relations department at Rose State College.

"Jenan is one of our long-term volunteers," Haywood said. "She's willing to do anything and everything for the festival."

El-Bakoush, who volunteers throughout the year with a variety of arts organizations, said she has been involved with the arts since she was young and began volunteering while in college.

Although her day job is in PR, El-Bakoush said she does a wide range of things for the events and organizations she volunteers for, from simply picking up food to being on a committee for months before the event actually happens.

"I'm just as busy as the next person, but I feel like I'd miss something if I just went from work to home," she said.

Like Haywood, El-Bakoush has noticed more young people getting involved. Within the arts, she attributes that shift in the volunteering base to a shift in the community.

"The arts scene in Oklahoma City has really expanded in the last few years " there are many young people and young artists involved," she said.

Being around that creativity and vibrancy is something that attracts El-Bakoush to volunteering, but it's also a chance to make new friends. Don't be fooled, however; volunteering can be a lot of work, she said, but it's immense fun, too.

Getting involved from a young age was a common thread with two other young volunteers as well, Traci Bentley, a 31-year-old director of metro strategy and development with Integris Health, and Megan Elliott, a 28-year-old office coordinator with Accel Financial Staffing. 

"I think the first volunteer project that I participated in was picking up trash as part of a service project in elementary school," Bentley said. She continued that volunteer work through high school, including dressing up as her character in "The Nutcracker" with Ballet Met of Columbus, Ohio, and visiting a local children's hospital.

Her volunteer work today runs the gamut of events and organizations in the arts, health, education and even a local lab rescue.

Elliott, like Bentley, volunteered from a very young age, first remembering attending events with her mother. In middle school, she volunteered one summer as a junior volunteer at Integris Baptist Medical Center.

"I missed my mornings of sleeping in, but it gave me such a unique perspective of different ways someone can volunteer," Elliott said.

That early exposure led her to dedicate her time to a variety of social issues and community development.

Both Elliott's and Bentley's employers encourage volunteering, for which they are both thankful.

"The mission of Integris Health is to improve the health of the people and the communities we serve. We strive to provide the best clinical care within our facilities, but also recognize that where people live, what they eat, their level of education and access to preventative care have major impacts on health status," Bentley said.

Integris gives its employees one hour per week to mentor at partner schools " Bentley's a mentor at Western Village Academy " and just this year added an extra eight hours of personal paid leave per year for employees to volunteer.

With these young volunteers in mind, Leadership Oklahoma City Inc. began a program designed specifically for young adults just out of college. The program, called LOYAL, joins Leadership Oklahoma City's signature adult program (which has an average age of 44) and high school programs for teenagers.

"LOYAL is designed as an entry-level program and is a skills-based program that teaches through education and hands-on learning," said Beth Shortt, executive director of Leadership Oklahoma City. "It teaches skills needed to be a good community volunteer and head toward a leadership position."

LOYAL has just kicked off its fourth class and has seen more applicants try out for the program each year. This class is the largest yet, with just fewer than 60 participants.

Shortt thinks Oklahoma City is unique in its welcoming attitude to young volunteers.

"This part of the world, Oklahoma City, is very open to accepting people by who they are, not who their family is or where they're from," she said. "Nobody cares all that much how long you've been here. There's more opportunity to get involved."

Elliott, a LOYAL grad, agrees. "I think we are in the midst of an exciting time for Oklahoma City. Many historic and urban areas are experiencing phenomenal growth and revitalization as well as our arts community," she said. "I think there has been an increase in opportunity that speaks more to young people wanting to volunteer and help further this change."

Though the rate of youth volunteerism is dropping throughout the country, an opposite effect seems to be happening in Oklahoma City.

"It's easy for young adults in this community to get involved with organizations for which they are passionate," Bentley said. "Through volunteerism, we are able to create the environment and resources needed to attract and retain bright young professionals. I volunteer for a few reasons, the first being that sitting around and complaining has never gotten anything achieved.

"Oklahoma City is in the process of reinventing itself. Much of the growth and excitement can be attributed to the business community, but also to many of the arts, cultural and civic organizations."

Volunteering helps to remind Elliott that, although still young and only one person, her actions can have a far-reaching effect.

"It is very easy to slip into a mundane routine in our lives and forget that we are a part of a much larger community," she said.

And, it's that same thought that compels El-Bakoush to volunteer. Even if statistics may tell a different story on the national level, Oklahoma City is once again bucking the trend of community involvement and young people.

"Get out there and really get to know the community and help the community," El-Bakoush said. "I get so tired of people saying there's nothing to do here. There's a lot to do and it's only getting bigger."

Marcia Chatelain was recently chosen as one of 26 Americans to become a member of the Transatlantic Network 2020, a program dedicated to connecting the next generation of leaders.

Chatelain, originally from Chicago, settled in Oklahoma in 2007 to join the faculty at the University of Oklahoma. The 28-year-old, who holds a doctorate in American civilization from Brown University, is OU's Reach for Excellence Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Honors at the OU Honors College.

She applied for the program after hearing about it from Chris Howard, who directs a leadership center at the OU Honors College. She was chosen as one of 100 young leaders across North America and Europe to attend the program kickoff in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The Transatlantic Network 2020 was created for young people ages 25 to 35.

"We spent a week talking about leadership, the relationship between Europe and North America and the tensions between and among groups," Chatelain said. "The program was trying to help us think about the historic and important transatlantic relationship."

She said participation in the program will influence her work at OU.

"I think it's so important for students to understand why history informs the stereotypes of Americans abroad, as well as helping them understand how current global politics will shape how they are received abroad," she said.  "Jenny Coon Peterson

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