Editor’s Note: Alexis Haycock recently won the Lima Exchange Club’s Youth of the Year. She delivered this essay at the ceremony.
With the ever-growing need for applications and resumes for colleges, scholarships and jobs, a new phenomenon has emerged: Community service and volunteer work have simply become fillers and fluff to boost our resumes instead of genuine acts of kindness to our fellow people and society. Some may argue that “service is service” and whatever someone is willing to give, despite their true motives, is absolutely acceptable and greatly appreciated. However, I would argue this means of contributing to the community completely misses the most beautiful element of service and does not truly parade the spirit of it. In order to effectively embody the spirit of community service with passion and commitment, one must have experience with formal “hands-on” service, have drive to actively prevent fundamental problems that instigate the need for service, and have genuine empathy for those being served.
When one hears the words “community service”, distinct ideas of what this means come to mind; Volunteering at your local hospital or animal shelter, working at the soup kitchen, tutoring classmates after school, river and highway clean ups… the list is endless. These are often those pesky “fluff” services that will start to fill our applications. However, these can also be wonderful and necessary stepping stones to develop into a successful embodiment of the spirit of service. What these actions provide are opportunities to directly and instantly respond to needs in our community. Hands-on work through different organizations can be monumental in changing the lives of those you are serving, and in turn be monumental in changing your own life as well by developing the characteristics of one who exemplifies the spirit of service, such as humility, patience, and compassion.
The essential companion to formal community service is fundamental work in society towards prevention of underlying problems that instigate the need for service in the first place. As wonderful and important as community service is, it is often merely an instant and short term treatment of symptoms that are results of foundational diseases in society. Therefore, methods of prevention focus on remedying underlying issues in our society through behind-the-scenes means (for example, instituting government policy and participating in passionate activism) to ultimately decrease the overall negative effects of any given societal issue. As an example, let’s take a look at one of the more common problematic reasons for community service and then identify reasons why it is that way in order to gain further insight into what could be done fundamentally to help the problem: Poverty.
Why is it that so many service opportunities revolve around feeding the hungry and clothing the poor? Or perhaps a better question, why can people not afford food and clothing? Reasons for poverty are vast; however, two major causes are a lack of basic academic education and lack of life skill development, both of which severely impact opportunity for employment in the future. So what can be done to decrease the prevalence of these foundational problems that cause poverty? One option could be supporting legislation that encourages public education for all citizens, including the impoverished, to help prepare youth for employment or furthered education. Another option would be to promote programs that teach life skills, such as money management and proper nutrition. Both of these solutions combat the foundational issue of poverty, and, though the effects are not immediate, will eventually help to heal the disease of poverty instead of only treating the symptoms through formal community service like soup kitchens and clothing drives.
This approach to serving the community requires the development of more characteristics necessary for one who truly symbolizes the spirit of service; social awareness, persistence, and commitment.
As the wise Tahereh Mafi once observed, “All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands, but with my heart.” The clearest distinction between one who performs community service merely to boost themselves and one who actually embodies the spirit of community service is the intent behind the actions; parading the spirit of community service with passion and commitment requires empathy for those you are serving. This intent is crucial to elevating service beyond obligatory actions to acts of genuine love, which makes all the difference in the world. I have felt this shift of motivation in my own experience.
In 2012, my family decided to sign up for the Adopt-a-Family for Christmas program run by the Allen County Children’s Services. We were given an information sheet filled out by a less fortunate family of what they genuinely needed for Christmas along with some humble desires. I was excited, but not particularly invested in the service, so my mother organized most of shopping. However, when discussing it one day with my mom, I happened to draw correlations between the family we were serving and the family of an acquaintance I went to school with. Sure enough, upon further investigation of the names and ages provided to us, my acquaintance was indeed the eldest daughter of the family. I was shocked; the harsh reality that a fellow classmate was suffering through a time that her family could barely afford basic needs was extremely humbling. From that point on, I experienced a drive like I had never felt before to truly make a difference in my friend’s life. I immediately invested myself in the process of gift buying, putting all my efforts into providing the absolute best Christmas they could receive, which included supplying all the needs and wants of the family. Because the eldest daughter attended the same school as me, I had the amazing blessing of seeing a glimpse the effect I had in her life. Just seeing her wear a shirt I had picked out would bring me outstanding joy.
Once my intent changed, the service became more than just a good deed or obligation. It instead represented a deep emotional connection and love for a fellow person. Herein lies the most important characteristic of someone who wholeheartedly embodies the spirit of community service; selfless love.
Formal community service experience, active drive to prevent fundamental problems that instigate need for service, and having pure empathy for those being served combine to make one the absolute best advocate for community service that they can be by truly embodying the spirit of community service. When so selflessly dedicated to the cause of bettering our society, one not only embodies an ideal standard for someone of service, but also develops a lifestyle that will shape every choice and action made in their life towards the goal of genuinely serving his or her fellow people, future generations, and world with undeniable love, passion and commitment.