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A Call to Service: How Serving Others Improves Our Community and Ourselves
In May two interviews were given that seemed to offer conflicting views of how we can change the world. Physicist Carlo Rovelli explained that we can only perceive the existence of a particle in a particular form when it interacts with something. Rovelli theorized that we and our communities only exist as a collection of interactions with others and that those interactions can be collaborative or combative. He suggested that the collaborative interactions will help us live a better reality. That same week, Algerian musician Souad Massi said that when she wrote her first song as a teenager, “I used to be a dreamer — I wanted to change the world.” However, Massi said that now she believes we have to work on what is not good in ourselves before we can help others and go about the difficult business of trying to change the world. How can we connect these two contradicting realities: a) that we only exist once we interact with others, and b) that we should work on ourselves before we help others?
Service is one way to marry them. By engaging in physical labor with others who may have different characteristics than you in order to meet a need in the community, we can have a positive impact. I was recently reminded of this through a collaboration with Student Veterans of America (SVA) and others. What follows describes some of my own experiences. The problem is, service is something you do, and words cannot accurately portray the personal satisfaction and powerful change that results from service.
To illustrate, I read Robert Lawrence Smith’s book, A Quaker Book of Wisdom, which includes a chapter on service. Lawrence espouses the need for action; that service is work and love; that ignoring those in need does not make us feel good, but instead, helping our fellow humans makes us whole. I did not comprehend these lessons until I lived them. For example, I was a relatively young teacher when my mother lost her battle with cancer. The following school year, I found that my work was making me whole. By showing up and serving my 7th-grade students every day, I was filling the hole left by my mother’s passing.
Ten years later, I volunteered a few days a week in a home for abandoned and abused children in Panama. We built a soccer field, developed and implemented music and art programs, and tutored the children. This work was some of the most difficult I’ve ever done, yet I was getting more out of it than I was giving. It turns out the love you get far outweighs the love you give.
Today I volunteer with the nonprofit A Place to Stand, which delivers tens of thousands of pounds of food and loads of furniture, operates a clinic for families without medical insurance, and builds community vegetable gardens. This spring, A Place to Stand collaborated with Travis Manion Foundation for Operation Legacy Alexandria 2018, which was organized by George Mason University’s Student Veterans of America Chapter—Mason Veteran Patriots.
Also joining the effort, The Mission Continues, Wounded Warrior Project, and Service Year Alliance banded together to help build a production and distribution garden at Mount Vernon High School. The motto of the Travis Manion Foundation, which later became the refrain of the day and the days to follow was: “If not me, then who?” Once again, on that day, I believe most of us left knowing what can be possible when we roll up our sleeves and get to work.
In the days and weeks since the project, students who benefit from the food program have told me that the vegetables they get on Mondays sometimes last a month. One student volunteer said Mondays make her happy because she knows she is helping others. Teachers see more focused work after school. SVA Chapter President, EJ Delpero, and members of Mason Veteran Patriots want to know what they can do next.
This fall, A Place to Stand is hosting a couple of fundraisers that need volunteers so that we can provide a stipend to a community member to manage the reinvigorated gardens. When that happens, not only have you fed local malnourished students fresh vegetables, you’ve also given someone who wants and needs a job, a job worth doing. There is a body of research on urban renewal, but I’m not sure we fully comprehend why and how community gardens and public art projects engender community development. More happens than we can quantify. What is quantifiable are the numbers of fellow citizens living in poverty and the resulting hunger and homelessness.
Those of us who have worked these problems have good news: they are not intractable. Far from it: they are easily solved. This Nation has more than enough money, food, and spare rooms. Especially, when organizations like SVA tap into their leadership potential through service, or when individuals decide to help through civilian national service programs.
For me, service is action that fosters love. You help yourself by helping others. If we want a better reality for humanity, we must value service. Work that aims to make the world better for all, without hurting some, should be valued the most.
Thus, Congress should do everything in its power to fund service programs like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and YouthBuild, as well as increase salaries and wages in service fields, such as policing, teaching, and nursing. In addition, organizations like SVA, WWP, The Mission Continues, and Service Year Alliance need our help to continue serving. Find organizations to which you enjoy giving time, and if there are others’ whose work you want to support, donate money or other resources. As many of us in nonprofits like to say, don’t give until it hurts; give until it feels good.
When people work collaboratively to meet critical needs, such as providing potable water, food, housing, medical care, and education, in communities at home or abroad, they develop valuable skills and invaluable relationships. Through service, we can improve ourselves while we help others, and thus have a positive impact on the world and the community around us. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?