Monday, March 26, 2007

My Generation: Why my younger sister is one of my heroes

by Kevin E. Cleary

Years before Tom Brokaw wrote his famous book “The Greatest Generation,” I was being clubbed over the head with the notion that my generation was a complete waste of DNA. I sit on the cusp of two demographics, Generation X, (aka the post-Boomers) and the generation that is being called the Millennial generation. Neither is particularly renowned for its volunteering spirit or selflessness.

Growing up, I always resented the implication that my generation would sit idly by while Hitler conquered the world, that somehow, we were all worthless and ungrateful brats. I’ve always felt that there are good people and bad people of every age, race, gender, and creed, and still do.

But, I’ve got to tell you, MTV and the mainstream media do very little to promote the idea that anyone under 65 cares about the world at large. I have shaken my head in disgust at shows like “My Super Sweet Sixteen” in which spoiled rich kids compete to have the most opulent parties. I have watched the rise of reality shows in which backstabbing and promiscuity are enshrined as virtues; and I have seen teenagers become a threat to homeless people more dreaded than Cleveland’s brutal winters.

It’s easy to believe the cynical notion that my generation cares only about celebrities, iPods, and themselves. It’s hard to argue that Gen X-ers or Millennials are making real contributions to society when all that you see on television is the near-constant fulfillment of our carnal desires. But I maintain my faith in humanity when I think about people like my younger sister Katie.

Katie is 21 years old, and a junior at Kent State. She works hard and studies hard every day, and could very easily be spending her much-deserved Spring Break on a beach in Florida somewhere. Instead, she ponied up a large sum of her own hard-earned money to take a bus down to Biloxi, Mississippi this week to help rebuild an area that is still devastated by the hurricanes of 2005.

Personally, I think Katie would have shown this volunteering spirit and concern for others even if our parents hadn’t drilled it into us, but I must say that I am amazingly proud of my little sister. There is no reason other than her inherent kindness that she is spending this week in obscenely humid weather doing hard, physical labor. By contrast, I did nothing but complain when my Spring Break was absorbed by the unintentionally complicated process of getting the latest issue of The Homeless Grapevine to press (more on that in a later post). When Katie told me of her Spring Break plans, I was quietly ashamed that I had whined so much.

But as proud as I am of my sister, I also have to say that she is not entirely unique in our generation. While Katie is an exceptional person, I cannot say that her kindness and volunteering are entirely unique. For example, a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of making a presentation to Katie’s residents (she works as a resident assistant at Kent) with Erin Huber, who is the founder of Covering Cleveland. Huber is somewhere in between Katie’s age and my own (I am 25, for the record). Huber started Covering Cleveland several years ago when she was still a teenager, and has spent her “free time” distributing blankets to homeless people ever since.

Then there are the countless AmeriCorps VISTAs, Peace Corps, and other service volunteers, many of whom are also under 30. These individuals get paid less than minimum wage to address the world’s toughest problems, and many help form the backbone of our nation’s non-profits. They selflessly contribute their time, creativity and drive to helping others, and I find it a shame that their efforts are never forwarded to counter the claim that our generations are worthless.

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