The culture of community service is one that really draws you in. And once you’re in, once you realize that “hey, I do have the time to help the others. I do care about those outside of my immediate circle. I do care about what’s happening to our planet and its inhabitants” Well, once that happens, you’re done for. A spark gets set off inside of you, a fire is lit that begs to be fueled and the only way to do so is to continue helping.
My first experience with community service was in the 7th grade, when I had to complete twenty hours of service in order to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. Like almost any other twelve year old, I whined and then made stuff up so I wouldn’t actually have to do all twenty hours. My mom was busy working full-time, going to college full-time, and caring for me and my brother, so she didn’t exactly have the opportunity to step in and help me realize the importance of community service. Like most others, I was stuck in the mindset, the stereotype, that community service is some sort of punishment. So I was confirmed, went on my merry little way, and didn’t really have any experience whatsoever in community service again until college.
When I started college, I pledged for a sorority. One of the requirements for being an active member was the completion of a set number of service hours. When the older girls would talk about having to do service, I didn’t even realize that there was a set number of hours – I just thought the service chair would organize projects throughout the semester and we’d help if we could. Instead, if we didn’t complete the set number of hours or we bailed on the mandatory projects, we received monetary fines. I don’t know why, but I was shocked when I found out that a few of the girls preferred the fine rather than having to take time out of their semesters to help others. As I’ve grown older, though, I’m sad to say I no longer think it’s shocking – most people would rather throw money at an issue than their time. “My time is valuable,” people will say…but um so is money. Now don’t get me wrong, donating money to a not-for-profit organization is always a good thing – too many needed organizations fall apart because of a lack of funding. Nevertheless, a lot of organizations also crumble because people think they’re too busy to ever do any community service. Or it’s boring. Or “no one’s helping me, why should I help them?”
Well, here’s where I’m going to make a case for karma or the collective unconscious or whatever you want to call it. Bear with me, but here’s my thinking:
Everything you put out into the world comes back to you. Sure, there may be no physical or material reward for helping others, but what are things compared to feelings? The feeling you get when you help someone else, when you put positive energy back into the world, it’s like nothing else. You may not always recognize the moments when that energy comes back to you, but it does. Not only that, but at the time when you’re helping, you’re also building more positive energy within yourself. That energy is limitless and so powerful if you use it correctly, it’s life-changing, it’s world-changing. You have the power to make such a huge difference in this world and it doesn’t take a lifetime, it doesn’t take hours upon hours of work, it’s easy – just help someone. You may never know what your help did for that person, but go ahead and play pretend. Imagine that the last unit of blood available for a car-accident victim is yours. Imagine that while volunteering at a local garden, you inspire the imagination of a child who then grows up to become a botanical scientist and she finds a cure for cancer in some unknown part of the rainforest. Imagine that the person you helped is a teacher whose day you made a bit better and because of this, he’s now working a little bit harder…and guess what? He’s teaching one of the next Presidents of the United States. Imagine that the person you helped was suicidal, thinking there was no one left in the world that cared enough to simply pay attention. Imagine that you saved a life, because in one way or another, you probably did.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who may see my optimism as naive (annoying at worst) but what’s so wrong in hoping? Yes, people will let you down – but they’re going to do that whether you believe in them or not. No one ever quit trying because they were believed in. So what do you do? A) You put no faith into people, have no expectations (and therefore no excitement about the possibilities), and whether they let you down or not – oh good, nothing has changed. B) You have hope, allow yourself to feel giddy about the future, and should you be let down – well, take what you can, learn better for next time, and get excited about what comes next.
In no way am I suggesting you walk blindly through life with a happy mask on, helping others every chance you get. Community service can be fun, though, if you’ll just give it a chance. Not only does it give you an opportunity to meet people you might never see otherwise, but you never know what might happen, events that will stay with you forever. You don’t know that helping to change someone else’s life might just change yours as well.
One of my favorite times of year is a week in November that’s known in the community service world as “Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week”. One of our annual events where I work is the Faces of the Homeless Panel. Last year’s event will be one that sticks with me for the rest of my life. Numerous moving stories were shared by those who have experienced and are currently experiencing homelessness, but one story stuck out in particular. A guy around my age was kicked out of his parents’ home and left to fend for himself. He had to spend the winter that year living on the streets, hoping every night there’d be room at the overflow shelter or at least an extra blanket somewhere. If there wasn’t, he spent the evening with nothing but cardboard between him and the frozen concrete. I sometimes complain, and then later feel guilty, because I don’t have the money to replenish my wardrobe or go out with friends; this guy, though, a guy my age, who had done nothing wrong but be born to the wrong parents, didn’t have money for a blanket, let alone new clothing.
At the time of this event, I was going through a really rough patch myself. I don’t think it’s something you commonly hear about, but being in your early twenties is rough! And nobody warned me! When I graduated from college, I felt stuck in limbo. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of four years, I didn’t know what I was going to do for a job, I didn’t know where I was going to live, and all of my friends were suddenly dispersed throughout the state, busy with their own “real world” worries. Because of all of this, I was severely depressed for quite a while. I didn’t feel as though I had any place in the world, I felt insignificant and dispensable. At this panel event, though, everything changed. Who was I to just sit around complaining when there are thousands, if not millions, of people out there who have it so much worse than me? I realized that the only person making me feel insignificant was me. So I changed – I decided to make myself indispensible, to make myself matter. And how did I do this? By showing those around me that they matter.
Not only did it put my own life into perspective, but it prompted me to want to dedicate my life, or at least part of it, to fighting homelessness, especially locally. Homelessness is a serious problem in our country, those are our people out there on the streets, and it’s not always because people are doing drugs or are irresponsible with their money or are too lazy to hold a job – sometimes, more often than not it seems in this economy, it’s because of bad luck. One in ten homes with a mortgage in America is in danger of foreclosure. ONE in TEN. This is America, this shouldn’t be happening! The big banks are scary powerful right now, though, and will take away someone’s home in what seems like the blink of an eye. So while you should never give a homeless person money, don’t ignore them when they ask for it. Instead, offer to buy them a sandwich or a pair of gloves or a bottle of water – what may only be a couple of dollars to you and a few minutes of time is truly life-changing for someone else.
Don’t look away from someone in need. Dare to step up and step out. When someone asks for help, consider it for a moment before immediately saying you don’t have the time or the energy or the resources. The human race can be kind of a screwed up set of creatures. (In general:) We rarely help each other, we don’t value the possibilities of intelligence, we fight for peace, and we instantly pass judgments based on outward appearances. Mistakes are hardly forgiven. It’s cool to be tough. Ignorance is allowed, hell sometimes it’s even encouraged. No one has time for anything.
And sure, it’s easy to look the other way when we see a homeless stranger on the streets. No one wants to think about how insignificant that person must feel. And in a way, it’s understandable. If you’re at all like me, you don’t want to witness that pain because then in some way, if only for the briefest of moments, it becomes your pain.
I was at a friend’s house the other day and one of those APL global warming commercials came on. Sad music in the background, pictures of a poor momma polar bear and her cub trapped on an iceberg, some B-list actress begging me to send money I just don’t have. Immediately, I grabbed the remote and changed the channel. Why? Because like most people, I sometimes have to turn myself on autopilot. While I’m all about experiencing life and absorbing as much as possible, sometimes the pain of the world is simply too much. Puppies who are beat while all the time still staring up in adoration at their owners. Babies tossed in the garbage with yesterday’s slop. Men turning to frozen corpses on the streets right in front of our very eyes. Women being ravaged and torn and violated in dark alley ways. It’s all so much and these aren’t MY problems so why should I face them?! It’s just…it’s so much easier to ignore these problems, especially when they’re not our own, because facing them means facing a pain few, if any, of us here have ever felt – this is where the autopilot comes into play.
While I by no means think everyone should constantly worry about everyone else (we all need to be a little selfish sometimes or we’d get burnt out real quick), nothing will ever get better in this world if you stay on autopilot 24/7, if you don’t break out of your shell, break out of your circle, and do something about it. The pain will never lessen. The world will grow darker. People will become even more shut-off. Eventually, we’ll all hide away within ourselves – silent, powerless, numb, and uncaring. Yeah, it hurts to face the problems of the world, but it’ll hurt more if you continue choosing to do nothing.
So do something. Anything. Donate blood. Become a boy/girl scout leader. Tutor. Visit the elderly. The possibilities are limitless and I PROMISE you can find something you truly enjoy if you’ll just try.
As Margaret Mead once said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”