If you judge Americans only by media coverage of our entertainment celebrities; sports, rock, and rap stars; and politicians, you'd swear we are spoiled, shallow, vulgar, and obsessed with money and "bling" or ostentatious jewelry and other showy displays of wealth.

But take your eyes off our Material Girls and boys, to borrow a term from Madonna, and you'll see a very different side of the American character. In 2005, the last year such things were measured, more Americans than ever in our history gave of their time as volunteers. They got back not a penny in pay. There were no red carpets or cameras. Their reward was the thanks of less-fortunate people and organizations, as well as a full measure of satisfaction.

Here's an example:

While thousands of American students on spring break from college rushed to the beaches of Florida and Mexico for sun and fun this year, 40 University of Richmond students flew from Virginia to Louisiana, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work helping to rebuild homes and churches in New Orleans neighborhoods that are still shattered, a year and a half after the killer hurricane Katrina. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper put it, "While fellow collegians slathered on sunscreen, the University of Richmond group ended each day sunburned, dirt-stained, and smiling."

An estimated 29 percent of adult Americans are also saving injured birds at wildlife sanctuaries, serving meals at soup kitchens for the poor and homeless, raising barns on farms, comforting hospital patients, and on and on and on. "Americans want something more than a nine-to-five job," a Peace Corps volunteer told the Christian Science Monitor. To get that "something more," they give of their time, their sweat, and their love.