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Teens Who Volunteer Reap Academic Rewards

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Volunteering was the last thing on Devin Cohen's mind three years ago, when he was keeping his mom company at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., where she received cancer treatment in the oncology unit.

"I saw that most people in the unit were kind of bored and lonely," said Cohen, 15. "And then I thought, What are the kids like when they're receiving chemotherapy? Won't they be lonely and bored?' So I thought 'Hey, I mean that's a good place to start and to help people out.' "

Cohen's initial idea has grown into a program that provides sick children at the hospital with books, games, sports gear, and companionship.

More than one in four teens nationwide does some type of volunteer work, such as bringing hope to sick children, beauty to their own neighborhoods, and safety to the homes of seniors.

But the giving goes both ways. Research confirms that teens who learn early to be social, caring, and responsible perform better in school. Volunteering improves their chances of graduating at the top of their class, armed with critical leadership skills.

It also makes teens feel good about themselves.

"There's no better feeling than giving back to the community, especially with children and in my case children with cancer," Cohen said.

His mother is pleased with her son's initiative.

"I'm really so proud of Devin," said Ellen Cohen. "I think he's encouraging other people to volunteer, which I think is important too."

Antidote to Trouble

Studies show that teens who volunteer just two hours per week have higher self-esteem and more resiliency and are 50 percent less likely to smoke, drink or do drugs.

Amy Figueroa is part of Fresh Youth Initiatives, better known as FYI, an organization that serves Washington Heights, a tough New York City neighborhood.

"It brings happiness to my life, knowing that I could do something -- that I could help somebody else," she said.

She and other teen volunteers hit the streets, replacing graffiti with murals, painting mailboxes, planting gardens, and sewing sleeping bags for the homeless. FYI recruits act as positive role models for their peers.

"There's a lot of people that get in trouble. They sell drugs or they just do bad things to people," Figueroa said. "FYI is a place where they could come and put all negative things behind them and start doing positive things to help with the community and help out themselves ... Mostly you see people my age like doing graffiti and stuff like that, so that gives the people another image of what kids can do."

One young volunteer provides some comfort to homeless people who sleep on New York's cold streets.

"When I work doing the sleeping bags for the homeless people and giving to them, it makes me feel proud of myself and it makes me feel so confident that I just did something good for someone and that someday, something good will happen to me," said Marilyn Rosa, 12.

Bridging Generation Gap

Teens who volunteer at the Heart of Manateens in Tampa, Fla., bridge the generation gap with the area's senior citizens and challenge the stereotype that adolescents are apathetic and self-centered.

Hildred Smarr, 80, is one of more than 3,500 seniors who live alone and have benefited from the program.

"About a couple years ago, a tornado came by, and this huge limb fell over on my roof and into my window," Smarr said.

"She had called up the Manateens at the volunteer center,and had asked, told us that she had debris all over the place," said Laura Lockwood, 20.

Teen volunteers dispatched to Smarr's house worked quickly.

"They cut it all up and took it all away. Isn't that marvelous?" Smarr said.

Corey Herbert, 15, said he felt good about helping senior citizens and getting to know them.

"I think it really makes an impact sometimes, once you like sit down and talk to them," Herbert said. "You do get really a nice relationship. And then they just kind of want you to keep coming back. And it's really nice."

Smarr is just thankful for the program.

"I don't know who started it all, or anything like that, but thank heaven they did," she said. "They are such good kids. They're terrific."

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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