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500 hours of volunteerism


When I first came to Riverdale, an awkward 14-year-old with too much time on her hands and several nervous habits, a few thingsTorvalds about the school were drilled into my head — and the heads of my classmates. One announcement, which perhaps caused the most groans from the new freshmen, was that 90 hours of community service would be required in order to graduate. A friend of mine with older siblings leaned over to whisper in my ear.

“It’s not so bad. If you get someone to shadow you, you get like seven hours. And stuff like the Bridges to India trip and Field Studies, you can get hours for that,” she told me. I sighed with relief — at least I wouldn’t put too much effort into that graduation requirement.

I’ve never been more wrong in my life. I began volunteering regularly at the end of ninth grade, when I spent roughly 70 hours working to put together a grade-school production of “Alice in Wonderland,” including the nightly construction of a giant teapot used as a prop in the infamous “The Unbirthday Song.”

Then came 10th grade, when I gave more than 80 hours of my time to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation with two-hour weekly visits to their office and full days spent working events and fundraisers, as well as a week at the cystic fibrosis unit of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital for field studies. The following summer, I spent more than 300 hours volunteering at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

I joined National Honor Society as a junior and am required to do at least one charity event per month. And now I’m working at Oregon Health & Science University eight hours a week. Since freshman year, when I began counting paltry hours spent working at school carnivals and trying to do as little as possible to earn those 90 hours and move on, I have spent more than 500 hours volunteering for local organizations.

Sometimes I joke with friends who ask me about my volunteering jobs, saying I’ll never get paid for a day of work in my life. I’ll interview for my first “real” job, only to inquire about the salary and be told there isn’t one. (“I’ll take it!” I’d cheerfully reply.) My colleagues at OHSU, all out of college and being paid — rightfully so as they actually work full-time — conspired jokingly to fire me and told me my severance pay was a third of what I’d been making thus far. I’ve made more money baby-sitting and tutoring kids than I have making websites or playing with cancer cells. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

I volunteer because I enjoy it and because it fills my free time. I’d make more money if I took a retail or food service job, but I wouldn’t have as much fun. I genuinely enjoy the people I meet when I spend time helping out at jobs I’m not exactly qualified to actually be hired for. Furthermore, volunteering lets me do work for organizations I’m passionate about: The minute I get my driver’s license I’m applying for a job at the feminist bookstore In Other Words because my mom is sick of driving me to every commitment I’ve already made elsewhere.

And I’m not alone. The Millennials, the oft-reviled “me, me, me” generation, are volunteering in record numbers. Whether it’s because college admission rates and unemployment are low or because global awareness is high, our generation is “the most civic-minded since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s,” according to Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, co-authors of “Millennial Momentum — How a New Generation is Remaking America.” The cynics of past generations can complain about our selfishness somewhere else — my peers and I are volunteering.

Patricia Torvalds is a junior at Riverdale High School, and she writes a monthly column for the Review. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..