At just 6-years old, one of America’s greatest minds stood on a Boston street in 1736 peering through a thick haze of smoke and ash to watch in shock as a raging inferno obliterated everything in its path. Lacking the manpower, equipment, and skill set, the townspeople were helpless. They watched, wide-eyed and trembling. By days end, roughly 100 homes were decimated.

People clamored for an answer. The little boy, who Americans later learned was the famous inventor Benjamin Franklin, had an answer: community service. He introduced the first all-volunteer fire department to combat future fires, and in doing so, launched a concept that’s impacted societal goods for nearly 300 years.

Today, community service and volunteering forges on as the unknown and untold backbone of American achievement. It’s helped us win wars and treat soldiers, eradicate polio and fight illiteracy, beat addiction and fight poverty. During the great depression, volunteers founded soup kitchens. In the 30’s it helped replenish our nation’s dwindling tree populations, a commodity essential to subsequent housing and manufacturing booms. Without it, America would not be America.

From education and poverty to wildlife conservation and affordable housing initiatives like that of YRNO, volunteer work has changed communities nationwide for the better. Consider it like this: In 2009, the latest date on record, nearly 63.5 million Americans performed 8.1 billion hours of community service. The economic worth? $169 billion.

Imagine if one day nobody performed community service. What would our cities, towns, and states look like? What opportunities to grow and thrive as a society would be lost? What would that have meant for the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? Without volunteers, we wouldn’t have been able to rebuild blighted homes.

Its impact provides a depth of brevity and aid that’s unparalleled. It’s an integral part of our society, and like Benjamin Franklin’s volunteer fire department, community services are spreading like wild fire. But this time, nobody is rushing to put it out.