“Movements are the expression of changed attitudes, and how each person comes to realize his responsibility to a greater whole is a unique experience.” — Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World
Before I launch into my own “unique experience,” let me just say that if you have a story about realizing you are part of a greater whole, please share your experience in the comments!
When I was in 11th grade, my private school instituted a community service requirement for graduation. Looking back, I think this is a wonderful idea, particularly in a school where nearly all the students come from privileged families. At the time, however, I did not think this was wonderful. I thought it was annoying, but was grateful that because we were only two years from graduating we got a “reduced sentence” of only 20 hours instead of the 30 hours that all the classes behind us would have to do.
A group of us spent several weekends working at a soup kitchen in some part of Washington, DC I’d never been to before. Because the soup kitchen itself was an all-volunteer effort, there was no supervisor to sign for our hours so we were allowed to sign for each other. Of course we padded our hours so as to be done with the requirement sooner. I remember very little of the experience aside from being scared of the patrons.
Fast-forward to my first year out of college, working my first job at a newspaper in a slightly seedy industrial section of downtown Silver Spring, MD. My office was down the street from a soup kitchen, and I volunteered there once a month for well over a year. This was 20 years ago and I don’t remember how or why I decided to volunteer there, but for sure I was there of my own free will, and even recruited one of my best friends to join me. Clearly a switch somewhere inside me had been flipped.
Several years later in Seattle, I was materially pretty well off thanks to a stroke of luck in taking a customer service job at a dot-com just before they became a household name. I had moved up to an editorial role which was more in line with my skill set, but lacked meaning. I wanted to feel good about what I did, and I just couldn’t get excited about the fact that I was merely helping people shop online. I tried looking for another job but instead ended up answering a volunteer ad to tutor at-risk students who live in public housing. My husband and I had just become home-owners, and I remember feeling like I was truly part of a community now, and had a responsibility to share my good fortune and good education with those in the community who had less of both.
For most of the past 10 years I have spent 2 hours every week during the school year helping kids build their reading, writing, and math skills and helping them with their homework. I love it. When I stopped tutoring for a year to have my own child, I missed it.
It was that ad that was my turning point–the answer I didn’t know I had been looking for.
Since then I’ve switched jobs to a company with a foundation that takes investing in the community as a serious responsibility, and asks interested employees to assist in reviewing the grants and making site visits to ensure that the money goes to truly deserving local programs. It’s the most rewarding thing I do at the company. It’s inspiring to learn of the great work that these programs are doing, and humbling to realize that there are still not enough programs to meet all the need just here in Seattle.
I have it good. I am not rich. But I have everything I need and then some. How could I not share that with those who don’t have even the basics?
Wanting to make the world a better, cleaner, healthier place with more opportunities for everyone is something I can continue to work on every day, even in small ways, whether it’s helping a 2nd grader with fractions, turning off the water in the shower while I soap up, saving plastic bottle caps so Aveda can recycle them into product packaging, or passing on my son’s outgrown clothes to friends with younger children or to Goodwill.
As they say, every little bit helps. And I feel like I would be letting the world down if I did not do my part.