I’ve been dedicated to community service since I high school. The whole idea of volunteering for an organization came about in school for me. Each year, since Elementary school, we would take a trip to some type of food bank or national park, something where it always came up that you could come here and work for free, if you wanted. That you could help protect the work that is happening here and therefore impact your entire community for the better.
During my freshman year in college I was hired to run the Children and Education program for our campus’s Volunteer Center. I, not knowing what I was doing, created an email list (first for our center), held weekly meetings, and created a monthly volunteer Saturday with different organization’s around Orlando taking care of children and promoting education. I partnered with a local underfunded elementary school to spend a day on our campus with a dozen student organizations. We had the school’s mascot come out during lunchtime. We took a tour of the campus and we set up a festival where each child got a passport that was stamped after you hung out with a UCF student group.
It was one of my most rewarding events. I learned how to pump up college students to spend an early morning with 3rd graders. I learned that you have to call people the day before an event to remind them (I didn’t do that). I learned how much public school buses costs to rent for the day ($300). I learned that even I could organize a big event with hundreds of moving parts and serve a purpose in the process. I could do something bigger than me.
My Junior year, I was asked to run the entire center, which meant I had to give up my weekly student meetings and my monthly Saturday commitments. But it also meant I could tag along with one of my 15 employees during one of their events, without all the stress. Running the center was fun and challenging. I learned that managing people is extremely difficult. I learned that people think because you are in charge you have all the answers. My friend Joe, who I met in 10th grade and had been very close with ever since, would stop by to make fun of me for being really into my college. This was not entirely true I didn’t enjoy UCF or Orlando, but I loved all the opportunity being so involved gave me, including free trips all around the country to national student activities events. I learned about Burma during one of these trips, which has taken me to the Thai/Burma border 6 times, including documenting the life of living inside refugee camps and internally displaced communities. Travel I never would have experienced without community service.
Community service has been a big part of my life for the past 10 years. When traveling Eastern Europe after a devastating heartbreak, volunteering for a local organization in Budapest helped me forget about the boy and focus on things more important. In more than one occasion it has taken me out of my own self-centered head to be somewhere else. Somewhere it didn’t matter that I had gained 10 pounds or failed chemistry (again) or accrued over $300 in overdraft fees.
One of my roommate’s friends was here on Sunday morning. I had never met him before, but he was in obvious trouble. He told me that he had worked several years ago at a pretty well known anti-deforestation organization but was now completely jaded that anyone could do anything to make the world a little better. I, being the eternal optimist, proceed to talk it through with him. I just can’t leave comments like that alone. He said that wall st owns everything. Nothing can happen without profit. I said it’s time to redefine the way we do business. Make money solving our world’s problems not contributing to it. The system doesn’t work so let’s change it. Let’s create laptops that are put together like pieces of a puzzle where broken parts can be easily replaced. Creating a potential end to the dangerous and often poisonous lifecycle of electronics. This is how we are going to save ourselves. Through innovation and creativity and whole systems design.
He still looked sad. The weight of what I have no idea sitting on his shoulders. “You need to get out. You need to do something beyond yourself”, I said to him. He didn’t respond, so I kept talking about things he could be doing to get back to where he was when he felt he could make a difference. Take a week off and volunteer for a small organization that is doing really good work. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
We are much too involved in our own heads. There is a whole world out there waiting to be explored and by sitting in our homes and reliving the day’s drama over dinner and bad prime time tv, we aren’t experiencing what the world has to offer. Community service can help us move on and our community move forward.