The Young Heroes Program was created in Boston in 1995 in response to an eighth-grader's desire to join City Year, an AmeriCorps program that unites young adults ages 17 to 24, from diverse racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds for a year of full-time community service, leadership development and civic engagement. After serving for a day alongside City Year corps members, the eighth-grader had wondered why she could not join. Sensing the need to link this younger age group with community service, corps members gathered middle school students from Boston to perform community service for eight Saturdays in spring 1995. Together they painted community centers, beautified green space and served in shelters. Since then, the Young Heroes Program has expanded alongside City Year to reach nine communities. Beginning on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in January 1998, the program will grow to be year-round with over 1,000 participants.
Young Heroes challenges middle school students to act as leaders and role models in their schools and communities. They educate their peers on HIV/AIDS prevention and tutor in after-school programs. Each chapter of Young Heroes represents a mix of urban and suburban youth, many races and economic levels, diverse family structures and a variety of religions and beliefs. Prior to joining Young Heroes, many students said they had never worked or made friends with people from backgrounds other than their own and their involvement with the program helped them become more comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds.
The Research and Systematic Learning Department of City Year administered both pre- and post-evaluation surveys of the participants' experiences. They found that the young people felt their ability to take the lead and make a difference increased, both improving their self-esteem and their ability to see themselves contributing to solutions in diverse groups. Nearly 99% of them are willing to recommend the program to a friend. The majority of Young Heroes finish the program expressing interest in becoming City Year corps members some day, and nearly all have intentions of continuing on with community service. Young Heroes has seen a national retention rate throughout the duration of the program of approximately 90%.