Healthy Living

By Giving Back, We All Can Be Special

What’s special about volunteering? Anyone can do it!

Without question, one of the greatest obstacles to increased volunteerism is the misconception that this vital work is reserved for some special breed of person; that it’s somehow the exclusive realm of the rich, powerful, uniquely gifted, spiritually anointed, or hopelessly big-hearted. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I cannot accurately count the number of times I’ve heard comments like “that’s so you” or “you’re perfect for that type of thing” when speaking to friends and family about my community service work. For some, this thinking provides a convenient excuse for inaction, particularly if you believe you are not one of the chosen few.
It becomes a simple, unspoken, often subconscious decision to leave the work of making a difference to the so-called experts, stripping precious man/woman-power from the already slim volunteer ranks. In all fairness, however, if you consider the way society rightfully glorifies the superstars of public service, it’s not hard to understand how we fall prey to this mindset.
In fact, I completely understand and support praising folk, famous and otherwise, who have dedicated their lives to the well-being of others. How can we not recognize and honor the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and countless other heroes who selflessly dedicated their lives to public service? Nonetheless, if we allow our respect and admiration for these distinguished folk to solely manifest itself in the form of inactive awe, then we’ve lost sight of their greatest lesson to us—that their lives serve to inspire us to take up the fight in our own way.
Far too often we indulge in empty idol worship, finding satisfaction in simply naming our institutions, children and boulevards after them. I seriously doubt that these titans of public service, particularly those who died on the front lines, sacrificed as they did (and still do) so that they might one day have a park or monument dedicated in their honor. I’m compelled to believe they felt a higher calling, one based on the value of human life and the nobility of service. As Dr. King said: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
It makes no difference whether your role is to lead millions or to teach one child to read a single book; there is a place uniquely reserved for you to take up that fight.
I still remember when I first began working with Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles. While I spent nearly four years coaching football in the group’s now-defunct High Five Sports Program and four years in a one-on-one matching with my “little brother” Cameron in the In-School program, my first assignment was with a creative writing project based in a South Central Los Angeles community center. The course was geared to young boys ages 8 to 12, and featured about 20 youngsters and five mentors, including myself.
During the first day, one of the project’s young participants innocently asked me why I was there. Not fully understanding the question, I tried to explain the goals of the project, our expectations and so on. He politely let me speak and then proceeded to tell me that he understood the program, but wanted to know if I was getting paid to be there. I then explained that I was a non-paid volunteer for Big Brothers and simply wanted to work with him and the rest of the kids.
“You mean you’re here for free?” he asked somewhat incredulously.
“Yeah,” I offered. “Is that OK?”
The simple shrug of his shoulders let me know that it was and we went on to the work of the program. However, I knew at that moment I had just satisfied his main criteria. In a world where we place so much emphasis on a person’s education and income level, I was in a space where those things mattered little. And I was reminded, yet again, that being special hinged more on my willingness to share my time than anything else.
From The Lost Art of Giving Back

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