For the 18 years of Lucy Leach's short life, her world had been 'me, me, me. She did her GCSEs - not too successfully - completed a BTEC in Caring, then got a job in a shop.

'It felt so superficial, she said. 'The customers were rude and always in a hurry. I thought: why am I here?

An acquaintance mentioned Civil Service Volunteers - now the pilot scheme on which Labour's proposals for a voluntary community service are based.

Lucy applied, was interviewed, waited four months, then received a telephone call. 'Yes, yes]' she cried, when told she would be working as a live-in help to a 63-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis.

As a volunteer for CSV she receives food, accommodation and pounds 22 pocket money a week. In return, she works up to 12 hours a day and is on call round the clock.

The money is enough she says. She wouldn't accept more: 'I'm here as a volunteer. I want to get back to human roots. Money would cheapen the experience.

More than 3,000 young people apply to CSV each year. Most stay for three to 12 months. No one is turned away. The goal is to teach practical skills, break down social barriers, and teach teenagers to be more responsible.

'We accept anyone who applies. It is our job to place people in the most suitable project, a spokeswoman said.

A minimum of three months' Citizens' Service is recommended by the Commission on Social Justice set up by Labour.

Estimated costs are high: pounds 500m for just 250,000 places - ten per cent of all 18 to- 21-year-olds. But the costs of youth crime will be cut by ten per cent, saving more than pounds 1.35bn in the first five years, according to the Henley Centre in a report commissioned by CSV.

Lucy says the investment in Britain's young people will bring high returns. 'Citizens' Service gives teenagers the chance to see society from someone else's point of view. It makes them more adult.

'You can't think about yourself. Sometimes I think no, that is not convenient. I have to remind myself I'm here for Mrs Burrows.

Lucy's day starts at 8.30am. 'I put the kettle on, sort out the coffee, go to see Ann, arrange her bits and pieces. Then I lift her out of bed in her hoist and into the wheelchair, take her to the bathroom, and lay out the medicine. Then I take out her catheter, help her get dressed, then washed. By then it is 9.30am.

She is supposed to finish by 7pm. But it is not that easy: 'Ann is not a baby. I can't say to her, 'It is 7pm - time for bed'. That is not respectful.

Ann Burrows, who has been in a wheelchair since 1976, has a tremor in her voice as she speaks of her gratitude to CSV. 'They are lovely girls - all absolutely wonderful.

That afternoon they had been to Bushy Park together. The chestnut avenue had been in full bloom and they had strolled down it, as people have done for the past 100 years. They had seen the deer and the flowers, then the battery on the wheelchair broke down.

'Lucy pushed me all the way home - no easy task. Passing teenagers joined in too. Together they got me home, Mrs Burrows said.

(Photograph omitted)