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Wearing bright yellow T-shirts scribbled with birthday greetings, Hailey Pietsch and a dozen of her best friends bopped to loud music and chatted about their summer plans at her 10th birthday party.
But it wasn't all about just having fun.
With freshly scrubbed hands and wearing hair nets, they measured out dehydrated vegetables and other ingredients and poured them into plastic bags, which then were sealed, counted and placed into boxes at the Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) warehouse in Coon Rapids.
"It's fun and it's helping other people," said Hailey, who lives in Brooklyn Park. Madeline Cole, 10, chimed in: "I think it's fun to come here. I like the good feeling after we're done."
Instead of water parks and bowling alleys, many Twin Cities kids are celebrating their birthday parties at places where they and their guests can "give back," either via a donation or a hands-on event. Others are signing up for summer "service camps" right along with the more traditional nature and sports camps or going on mission-like trips, which were once offered only through church groups.
"They get it. I can see that they understand," said Ann Hill, an FMSC team leader who was in charge of Hailey's party. "They see the video [about the need for the food] and they get to taste the food. It's a really cool way to celebrate and reach out at the same time."
It's part of a growing trend of volunteerism that's gathering steam despite the bad economy. According to a recent federal report, 63.4 million Americans volunteered their time last year, an increase of 1.6 million from 2008 and the biggest jump since 2003.
Minnesota ranked third among states and the Twin Cities metro area was first among large cities in volunteer rates for those 16 and older.
Millennials, those born after 1982, also volunteered in greater numbers: 10.8 million in 2009, up from 9.8 million in 2008, the report said.
As schools and colleges promote service learning, students are taking hold and seeking their own opportunities, said Jaime Renner, a state program specialist for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that sent out the report.
"Young people are taking what they're learning and applying it to real-world situations," she said. "The boomers had a real ethic of service, as well, and their parents and grandparents are instilling that in this generation."
The new summer camp
Several school districts now organize service trips or hold summer "service camps." District 622, which is made up of North St. Paul, Maplewood and Oakdale, recently took high school students on a Pay It Forward trip to Wisconsin and Chicago. Edina High School's Youth Serving Youth members are at South Dakota's Rosebud Indian reservation this week, the first time the trip has been offered over the summer.
Minnetonka is in the third year of its Summer of Service program, where kids in grades four-eight go on a different service project each day for a week. The two sessions filled up quickly; more are planned for next year.
"This is the biggest year ever. I think we've built an awareness throughout the district and families in our community about the importance of service," said Meg Low, coordinator of youth programs for community education. Also, she said, "older teens are having a hard time getting summer jobs, so I think that they're looking at this as an alternative."
Tonka TeenWORKS, a summer volunteer and teen leadership program, filled up so quickly that the program had to expand on the fly so more could participate.
"Young people are more global because of technology, so I think they understand their place in the world a little bit better and the need to give back," said Low. "I see it as an incredible growing trend."
Giving, not getting
Claire Deitering of Minnetonka had her "half" 10th birthday party at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley in early June. For a $150, kids got a lesson on why pets should be spayed or neutered, then went on a tour and scavenger hunt. Finally, the birthday girl got to pick a "guest" animal for the kids to play with.
"I wanted to have my party here because I thought it would be fun and interesting," Claire said. The best part? "I liked the tour and we got to see all the different kinds of animals."
The girls oohed and ahhed as Melvin, a West Highland terrier mix who had just arrived from Oklahoma, made his way around the circle of girls, clearly enjoying his big moment. Next up was a rabbit named Marley, who had been surrendered because he didn't get along with his owner's other rabbits. The Humane Society gets the fee for the party, plus guests are encouraged to make a donation of their own instead of giving the birthday child a gift.
"The kids are engaged and having fun, but you can tap into that trend of what can we do to give back instead of getting a bunch of stuff," said Tammy Noack, education manager for the Humane Society.
The two-hour parties are so popular that they have to turn people away. "We're blocked out for two months [for weekend parties]. People are calling and asking, but we just don't have the times available," she said.
Back at Hailey's party, she and her friends watched a video about the importance of the food they would be packaging to the recipients, starving children in more than 70 countries.
Natalie Findell, 10, of Brooklyn Park, said the event beat a party at the Brunswick Zone. "Been there, done that," she said, clearly having a good time counting out the bags of food before they were packed in boxes. "I really just wanted to help."
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707