By Chuck Lafferty

For the past three summers, I've been a crew leader with the Student Conservation Association, a national organization that provides young people with service opportunities. Each July and August, I lead a team of Philadelphia high school students we rarely hear about: inner-city youths who are making significant positive contributions to their neighborhoods and to the city as a whole. These teens learn valuable lessons during our six weeks together, but they've taught me something too - the importance of volunteering.

Many of the teenagers I work with come from tough neighborhoods and situations where career training and positive mentors are not readily available. But they've created real opportunities for themselves through community service, and the payoff has been real - not financial but every bit as valuable.

The students with whom I worked learned crucial job skills, even though we were nowhere near an office. They were always on time, and not one of them missed a single day. They worked hard, removing invasive plants and clearing debris, and they had results to show for it: miles of repaired trails in Philadelphia parks and nature preserves and acres of restored habitats.

These teens learned to work in teams, a vital skill for many employers. It takes two people working in tight rhythm to cut a tree with a crosscut saw, and even then it's physically demanding work. They loved it.

They also made great contacts and now have references to vouch for their work ethic - and not just from me. One day this summer, Karen Baskerville, a biology professor at Lincoln University, joined us and spoke with my crew members, all rising high school sophomores and juniors. She came away so impressed with them that she gave each of them her card and said they could use her as a reference on their college applications. You can't put a dollar value on that kind of a competitive advantage. Who knows where it will take them?

The great beauty of service is that anyone can do it. It's the most equitable form of advancement in the nation. Volunteers gain exposure to new experiences and fields. They get a chance to learn what they like and don't like. They are given an opportunity to prove themselves in new settings, which can open the door to career opportunities.

I saw one door open wide for a fellow Philadelphian. She was volunteering with the Friends of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge after losing her job in public relations, and she found a new job in environmental service through her volunteer work.

In a tough economy, job candidates need every advantage, and volunteering provides that edge. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, volunteers are 27 percent more likely to find a job after being out of work than nonvolunteers, and this relationship holds steady regardless of a person's gender, age, ethnicity, geographic area, or job-market conditions.

Volunteering also lets you make a difference while you gain those various advantages and experiences. It lets you help your community and your city, improving them in tangible ways. And you can do it just about anywhere: at a school, a church, a retirement community, a park.

It's a simple way to give back and to get ahead at the same time.

When it comes to volunteering, as my teenage crew members this summer proved, everybody wins.