I was listening to the New York Public Library podcast on the way to work, and they were talking with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor about her life, education, etc. One of the things she spoke passionately about was required (but broadly defined) community service hours.
I first encountered mandatory community service hours in high school. I forget if we needed them all four years, but I’m pretty sure we were required to get them senior year. I know the first actual community service gig I did was when I was a candy-striper at 14. I’d grab dinner and ride my bike to the military hospital in my neighborhood and help out, delivering trays and building spreadsheets and working with charts. My family (apparently it was my dad) was compulsively involved in my church, so I’d been involved in ministries starting at 9, but we’ll count those as something different from community service.
When I went to college, I had a ton of small, medium, and large scholarships, and several of them had service hour requirements. (It was a Franciscan college, and their dedication to community service is pretty epic.) They required unique service hours, so where I was required to get 10 hours per year for my leadership scholarship, I doubled it for another scholarship I had. Various service projects I remember from college:
- I was a clown, and visited nursing homes and hospitals and schools
- I worked in soup kitchens
- I mentored girls at Girls Inc.
- I sang at nursing homes and hospitals
- I went door to door collecting canned goods for the hungry
- I volunteered on a Confirmation retreat
- I took a bus to an area hit hard by flooding and mucked out a basement
- I picked up trash on the highway
- I managed a poster campaign about World AIDS Day
- I taught religious education
After college, I was so much in the habit of community service that I was usually doing some— organizing blood drives at work or singing in the choir at church or such-like. I deliberately stopped community service when I started grad school. I was working full time and in grad school full-time, and one month in (while the world still reeled from 9-11), my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. My plate was full, to say the least. But my church kept calling for tutors for a community program. You had to subject yourself to fingerprinting and a criminal background check, among other things. The first week I heard about it, I thought I should do it, and immediately discarded the idea. “Don’t be crazy— you don’t have time.” The second week, I thought “It sounds like they really need people, and it sounds like a great program, but I don’t have time.”
Eventually, I applied and became a tutor. I didn’t have time, but I worked it out anyway.
That service project was one of the greatest gifts of my life. At a time when I felt overwhelmed and utterly helpless, in the face of my dad’s epic illness and work and school and craziness, I would go there for an hour a week, and tutor a little boy on whatever he was struggling with. We recited times tables and ran spelling words, I quizzed him and read with him and gave him tips and hints. And every week, I left and I thought “I can’t do the thing I want to do (heal my father), but it turns out, I can do something for someone.” And it felt like something to him and his family and teachers, and it felt like something to me.
I came back and did it for another year, with another kid, even after I moved out of the town (twice) and my life got even more hectic.
So now, in my life, it’s a rule. I reach out and give back no matter what else is going on. It’s good to help others, and I’m happy for whatever way I can do that. But the lesson I really teach is to myself. Whether I’m shelving books at the library, planting trees, picking up trash, or teaching religious education, I can do something for someone. Which is pretty powerful, when it comes down to it. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Supreme Court Justice. I hear she’s pretty smart.