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Recession brings more appeal to humanitarian jobs

The Kansas City Star

Mark Joseph took a spin in the corporate world. He might again.

But he’s not looking to do better. He’s looking to do good. Someday, he hopes, he’ll be running a nonprofit agency of his own creation.

Rebecca Stover has taken on the life of a gypsy, working for one save-the-world outfit after another as she planned to open a cafe that better connects farm to table.

Jessica Foulke’s road diverged away from the private workplace when she came out of McPherson College in Kansas, and that has made all the difference.

Jasmin Hostin had always thought do-good service first. She’ll spend two-plus years in Africa before braving the jungles of the American job market.

The evidence that young adults have taken to public service as a refuge from the gloomy economy is mixed at best, but if ever there were a time to opt for philanthropic work it would seem especially convenient now.

Some things do indicate that young people are packaging their skills with their conscience. There has been a rise in so-called “B corporations” that team shareholder interest with an explicit public good. Volunteering is up slightly in the past five years — in part because it’s a commonly advised practice for those on the prowl for paychecks.

And consider the Peace Corps. In 2001, fewer than 9,000 people applied for two years-plus of overseas volunteer work. By the worst of the recession in 2009, that number had gone well past 15,000. Today fewer than one in three is accepted.

Statistics tend to show that volunteering among the young has been relatively stable over the last two decades — and that it’s most common among college-bound high school students, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies and public affairs at Indiana University.

He also led the Corporation for National and Community Service, and saw increases in applications for AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He attributed the increases to a combination of patriotism and a downturn in the economy.

The ultimate benefit to public service for young people may be as much for them as for those they hope to serve, Lenkowsky said.

Foulke graduated from McPherson feeling she ought to put the welfare of others ahead of her career.

She wound up manning an after-school program through AmeriCorps aimed at opening the eyes of high school kids in Austin, Texas, to the possibilities of college. She was shocked at how exotic an idea college was for the kids, and how rewarding the work was for her.

“It sounds cheesy, but it was absolutely life-changing,” she said. “It also made me extremely marketable.”

She’s teaching now.

Stover said that as she left college in 2006 with a liberal arts education she wanted both to give back to society and to see what the world might offer her.

She has tried her hand at several service organizations since leaving Kansas for Arkansas, and now has a home — along with a salary and benefits that make her solidly middle-class — at a domestic violence shelter.

But if the job went south, Stover thinks she could always go back to volunteering, tripling up with roommates and living on less. Even if a corporate headhunter were to knock on her door some day, Stover doesn’t think she’d be interested.

“Money is always really appealing. And that is about the extent of appeal,” she said. “I have friends who have (corporate) jobs and quit them because it is just so monotonous. …You need more.”

Liberty’s 21-year-old Hostin leaves in January for 27 months in Mali for the Peace Corps. It will fulfill a dream she has nurtured since she was 12 — and will keep her college loan payments at bay. She’s freshly graduated with a degree in family studies and human services from Kansas State University.

She’s eager for the adventure, for a taste of a faraway culture and for a chance to make a difference.

“I’ll really be getting in and learning about people’s lives,” Hostin said. “I think (young) people are just getting more interested in helping out.”

Take Joseph, who moved to Kansas City with his fiancee about a year ago after both lost their jobs. He’d been working as a forensic accountant on the East Coast before being laid off. Now he wants something different.

He’s still looking for work — he guesses he has sent out 200 resumes in the last year and has been lucky to get no-thank-you e-mails in return — but is taking classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to get an MBA in public administration.

He may work again for a large business, but he hopes his new degree will prepare him to launch a sports charity.

“It would be personally rewarding,” Joseph said. “I need to make a living, but I want something more, too.”

© 2014 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.