By Mindy Yang, Editor-in-Chief
Haven’t you ever wanted to help out in your community but haven’t been able to figure out who needs help? Matching kids and adults between the ages of 5-25 to serve their community is just what Steven Culbertson of Youth Service America (YSA), a nonprofit organization, spends his time doing as President and CEO. Beginning from a young age, his interest in helping his community has led him through various volunteer opportunities and jobs including Director of Communications, Vice President for Development and College Relations and Vice President for Marketing. In 1996, Mr. Culbertson created servenet.com, a database based on volunteering needs which led to the creation of YSA.org. The Youth Service America organization has expanded past the United States and into 100 countries. His recent projects include Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), Semester of Service, and Get Ur Good On. Mr. Culbertson has shown that youths can have a profound impact in their communities with the right pairing of volunteers to projects. Let’s explore how his passion for youth and the community has created an organization that makes a difference, allowing magnificent things to happen with few resources.
AK: What does YSA stand for?
SC: YSA is what most people call the organization, but they are also initials that stand for three very powerful words: Youth Service America. Today, our work extends far beyond our 1986 roots in the United States to engaging young people in more than 100 countries on six continents.
AK: What is the mission of YSA and why do you think it is important for young people to be involved in service?
SC: YSA’s mission is to increase the scale and the diversity of young people, ages 5-25, serving in substantive roles. We are committed to engaging all kids everywhere, not just the lucky and the privileged. As with learning any important skill, such as music or sports; any important value, such as gratitude and sharing; and any important aptitude, such as reading or numeracy, it’s important to start young. A child who starts volunteering at age five will have a decade of experience solving problems in their community by the time they are 15. By the time they are 25, they will be experts at the complex dynamics that create strong communities and a healthy planet.
AK: How has your past shaped your interest in youth volunteering and leadership?
SC: My father graduated from West Point and served his career in the military, so my family and my experiences in various school and after-school programs gave me confidence and encouragement to be involved in trying to make the world a better place. I was born on an Air Force base in Europe, studied at a French university, worked overseas, and travelled widely, so I have learned to appreciate Kofi Annan’s adage that “problems do not have passports.”
AK: Many of your involvements such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Vice President for Marketing at Sumner Rahr & Company are related to nonprofit organizations. What inspired you to join this field?
SC: I served on the national board of directors of my college fraternity when I was 19. I was shocked to discover at my first meeting that I really did have the same voice (and vote!) as the seasoned CEO sitting across from me. I also learned that the nonprofit sector, funded by thoughtful individuals, corporations, foundations, and governments, is where most of the world’s problems are understood and solved.
AK: YSA is a nonprofit organization. Where and how do you get funding and sponsorships?
SC: YSA has a generous set of corporate and government partners who share our values and belief in the importance of young people finding their voice on the critical problems facing the planet, taking action, and having impact. We are successful because we align our work with the critical issues of our times: health, education, human service, human rights, and the environment.
AK: How has YSA had a global effect and can you give specific examples of the impact?
SC: Only human intervention solves problems — working, of course, with vehicles such as schools, nonprofits, governments, and corporations. With half the world’s population under 25, we would be foolish to ignore the power of young people to influence every aspect of where the world is going: economically, politically, and socially. I think YSA’s impact has been to put children and youth center stage, positioning them as assets and resources instead of victims or recipients. We remind decision-makers constantly that if they don’t have a youth strategy, then they don’t have a strategy at all.
AK: Describe your job and favorite part of your career.
SC: Just like any corporation, YSA has an important brand, and my job is to increase its value in the world. As the CEO of YSA, my job is stay one to five years ahead of the organization in terms of its strategic direction. Since both policy leaders and funders expect to interact with the boss, I’m also the primary spokesman and fundraiser. Unbeknownst to them, I have an incredible team of bright and dedicated people who are the heart and soul of YSA. My favorite part of the job is seeing a young person come to the realization that they have the power to change the world.
AK: What goals and hopes do you have for the future of YSA and youth involvement in the community?
SC: Service is power, so the primary obstacles to our work are the adults who see youth as only future leaders or the hope of some distant tomorrow, when in fact they are leaders today. So many good-hearted adults want to make kids the recipients of service, instead of making room at the decision-making tables and asking young people to be contributors and to serve today. My primary hope is that adults, who were once young themselves, so they should “get it”, will see young people in a new light.
AK: Who has been a mentor to you to help make you a success in your field?
SC: No one is successful alone, especially me, so I constantly tell kids to seek out and nurture strong youth adult partnerships. When I was in my 20s, a colleague named Betty Hill first helped me to really understand the nature of the world’s disparities and our individual and collective responsibilities to fix them. Since being at YSA, former Senator Harris Wofford has been my biggest champion, because he lets me argue ideas and even win sometimes.
AK: If a kid wanted to pursue a career in your field, what advice would you give them and how can kids and teens get started on their own Youth Service project?
SC: Start by falling in love with the problems of the world and realizing that you have a capacity great and small to make them better. Follow your passion, whether it’s sports, music, technology, gaming, writing, etc. and figure out how to use that “spark” for the common good. If you are unsure where to start, there are many well-researched agendas, such as the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, that can point you in the right direction. Finally, don’t be afraid to dabble in the solution to different problems. Water scarcity, for example, is intricately connected to girls’ rights, education, hunger, children’s health, literacy, and many other issues.
Editor’s Note: Get Involved with YSA!
YSA offers programs and grants for which youth ages 5-25 can apply. YSA’s biggest event is Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), which celebrates youth-service year round. You can either make your own project assessing a community need or join one nearby. Get started by going to http://gysd.org/get-involved. GYSD 2012 is April 20-22.
YSA also created Semester of Service which is a semester-long service-learning project addressing a community need and based on “duration and intensity”. Prominent national service events are linked to these projects which last at least 70 hours. Anyone can organize a semester of service. There are toolkits and resources located on the YSA website at http://ysa.org/semester.
Started in 2009 by YSA and Miley Cyrus, Get Ur Good OnTM is an online network for youth to support each other in their missions to do “good” in their communities. The description can be found on the YSA website at http://ysa.org/geturgoodon or joins the tens of thousands of GURGO members at http://www.geturgoodon.org/.