Column – America should recommit to volunteerism

Published 4:58 pm Thursday, August 4, 2022

I have no factual basis for the following thoughts other than 50 years of observation.

Those years have convinced me that the currently disastrous distrust of our most vital institutions — government foremost among them — largely has its roots in the elimination of the draft and the general decline in youthful volunteerism.

This nation was so disillusioned by the damage done to a generation of young people in the jungles of Vietnam that we were determined to eliminate the hated military draft at any cost. Henceforth, the U.S. would rely on a professional military based solely on volunteers.

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Aside from the many problems associated with an all-professional military — and they are significant — we eliminated an underlying commitment of service to country that young men had held more or less in common under the threat of draft. (Today, of course, that would include young women.)

Military professionals argue, and I am confident that they do so correctly, that today’s military requires far more training than was given draftees and far more commitment than the brief tours the draft required.

I refuse to believe, however, that all military tasks are so technical that draftees could not be trained in them, or that many jobs which today may be under profitable contract to private companies could not be performed by draftees.

Nor is the military the only avenue for universal service. There is much work to be done in this country, and a year or two of compulsory service by our young people could be turned toward that work.

There was a time when much of that work, particularly in local communities, fell to young volunteers. Like the draft, that volunteer cadre has now largely disappeared.

When I returned to Smithfield in 1972, the Jaycees were a powerful force in the community, as were the local Junior Women’s Clubs and a number of sororities, which tapped volunteers in both the white and African American communities. 

The Jaycees, in particular, were a training ground for community leadership. People like O.A. Spady and Mac Cofer, who would later devote years of their lives to public service, earned their stripes as active Jaycees. They hung Christmas lights, sponsored horse shows to raise funds for the Fire Department as well as numerous other outreach activities. Across the commonwealth, Jaycees raised funds to operate Camp Jaycee, a 90-acre facility near Bedford that operates for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That facility continues today.

The women’s groups sponsored literacy projects and raised funds for vitally needed scholarships to be given to young people bound for college.

The Smithfield Junior Woman’s Club undertook the priceless collection of rural recipes that had been used for generations by local homemakers and produced a cookbook that remains a vital link with our culinary past.

Other young people later participated in the collection of narratives from the county’s elderly. From those interviews came “Many Voices,” a priceless collection of recollections dating to the early 20th century.

Today, the most common complaint among civic organizations is a lack of “new blood” — young people who will carry the mantle of volunteerism forward for years to come.

There are many causes of the current distrust of government, not the least among them people willing to base their political appeal on falsehoods. But one of the causes — and one that I’m convinced is not insignificant — is the lack of involvement of young people in the world around them.

There are efforts to change this. One of the most positive trends is the “service factor” that gets written into high school transcripts. Young people are being encouraged to perform public service work if, for no other reason, than to serve as a resume builder. Some of them even find that once they commit to service outside themselves, they actually like it.

More is needed. If not universal service of some kind, then something approaching it. It doesn’t have to be peeling potatoes in a mess hall, but it needs to be service to the larger community. 


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is