In December 1941, 26-year-old Rae Wilson wrote the editor of the North Platte, Neb., Daily Bulletin after having watched townspeople hand out food and notes of encouragement to soldiers on their way to combat in World War II. Wilson suggested that the community open a free canteen to serve the soldiers whose troop trains paused in North Platte while the steam engines took on water. Her letter launched one of the most inspiring home-front efforts of the war. When the trains made their brief stops en route to military bases in the West, North Platte put on a show. Young women attended each arrival with baskets and smiles, offering fruit, matches, and candy bars to the soldiers, while directing them to the canteen. Inside, a pianist provided music and local girls wearing their Sunday finest danced with the servicemen for a few moments. "For the next five years, volunteers welcomed every single troop train that came through North Platte with something good to eat and words of encouragement," Bob Greene wrote movingly in his book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen (2003). "More than 55,000 volunteers from 125 communities
in Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado came to help." By 1946, North Platte had nurtured 6 million soldiers on their way to war—and on their way home, too. One later wrote a thank-you published in the North Platte Telegraph. "To think that you people, to whom we all were strangers, would do all you did for us," he wrote. You "showed us that this was the real America, this is what we had fought and worked for and wanted to come back to."
Rae Wilson's story is as quintessentially American as it is familiar. According to a 2010 report released by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities in 2009, an increase of 1.6 million from the year before. Together, they contributed 8.1 billion hours of service, for an estimated dollar value of nearly $169 billion.
This instinct to rally around a cause, to serve a greater good, has been with us since Colonial America. As John Winthrop led a group of English Puritans to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he imparted the "model of Christian charity" that would define their colony. "We must bear one another's burdens," he told his fellow settlers. "We must not look only on our own things but also on the things of our brethren." In settlements like Jamestown and Plymouth, neighbors depended on one another to survive harsh winters and privation. The settlers raised barns, hosted quilting bees, and built common areas. "Every community established in the Bay Colony was obligated to take care of its own legal inhabitants," wrote University of Connecticut historian Robert Gross.
In the mid- to late 18th century, public service became less of a Christian mission and more of a civic duty. Benjamin Franklin, who would go on to establish a towering position in American history as a newspaper publisher, signer of the Declaration of Independence, diplomat, and inventor, led the way. When the streets of Philadelphia needed sweeping or lighting or paving, he gathered men and resources to the task. When fires threatened to destroy the city, he organized the nation's first volunteer fire company, an idea so compelling that cities up and down the Atlantic seaboard adopted it. "Franklin could be called the Founding Father of American voluntarism," says historian and biographer H.W. Brands. He also began an insurance company, a voluntary militia, and a philosophical society—all, notes Brands, "based on the principle of individuals working together, uncoerced, for the common good."
Mindful of the gap in knowledge that separated the classes, Franklin borrowed an idea from Britain and founded America's first subscription library, where those of moderate means could gain access to the books once the exclusive purview of the elite. Soon similar libraries would open from Charleston to Boston. Franklin also founded the Junto Club, made up of shopkeepers and businessmen, to discuss other ways they might benefit their community.
New advocates. As the middle class grew in America, people found more opportunities to serve. By the 1830s, two groups who felt their lack of power—women, who had no right to vote, and the clergy, their political authority weakened by the constitutional separation of church and state—formed benevolent societies to focus on issues they felt hurt society. They advocated for ending illiteracy and abuse of prisoners, among other causes. What Gross called their "crusading spirit of reform" led to the great antebellum movements against slavery, cruelty, and "drink" that helped define the country for generations.
"All the institutions that we take for granted were started somewhere, somehow, by people who were in opposition to the status quo," observes Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., which trains volunteers worldwide, and coauthor of By the People (2005), which chronicles those reforms. "The stereotype is that volunteers are 'helpers,' but history suggests that they are change makers."