Finding My Niche in Community Service

I went to a Catholic high school in which we had to complete a certain amount of hours of community service every academic year. My freshman year, I wasn’t ecstatic about this, as I had just switched schools and lacked confidence in my social skills. My mom worked at a children’s hospital when I became a sophomore, and I began volunteering there for a few years because it was convenient, not because I requested to volunteer there.

My senior year of high school (2014) I was asked to present a speech to over 400 students, teachers and faculty on my community service endeavors at the children’s hospital, and I only accepted because I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. It took me a week to write a five-minute speech and by the time it was done, I presented it one morning in our Chapel, nervously telling my peers that “by interacting with the kids and treating them like any other preschooler, they learn to open up and overcome their physical limitations,” and “by making volunteering a priority and a keystone of my life, I learned how rewarding it is to understand what it means to a child when you give them a little bit of your heart.”

I felt separated from my words. When writing the speech, presenting it, and having teachers tell me my speech was wonderful, what I had said didn’t resonate with me.  Volunteering felt like a waste of time, yet I was giving a speech on how important it is, how I learned of the generosity people with physical restrictions have, and how I learned that one of the biggest equalizers of our society is when we share our life with others.

I ended my speech by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” My belief in this quote still stands today.

In actuality, when volunteering at the hospital, I felt marginalized from my co-workers. They all knew what they were doing and how to interact with the children, while I didn’t know how to unlatch a kid from my leg and put him down for a nap. I was called out on it once too, and was mortified. I was sixteen years old and was told my presence prevented the kids from sleeping. I was discouraged. The kids wouldn’t listen to me, one even stole my ID badge and tried to run with it. Another one swung her arm around the room – which wouldn’t have been so terrible if she didn’t reach into her pants to reveal to everyone that she soiled herself – and nearly infected the children she sat next to. I was sixteen years old with no training and didn’t know what to do.

In the “Learning Through Serving” article, Christine M. Cress pens a few questions that we may have asked ourselves from time to time: “Why must I be ‘required’ to participate in service-learning? If I want to make a positive difference in my neighborhood, why shouldn’t I be left alone to decide for myself when and where I want to volunteer?” The latter question spoke to me the most, seeing as I was forced into a certain space to volunteer at rather than finding my own niche in the volunteering world. Fortunately, I had a change in attitude by my senior year.

Shortly after that day, I was approached by the same teacher who asked me to give the speech, and he asked if I would like to accompany him and several other students on a Midnight Run. The Midnight Run includes going into New York City – I went to school in Westchester – and handing out clothing and food to the homeless at night. I said yes.

The Midnight Run was a different experience for me. I was in the van that had clothing donations in it, and when we arrived in the city, I had an epiphany almost— I don’t know what quite happened, but I immediately changed my views on volunteering. Most of the homeless people that we approached needed pants, so all I can remember hearing is an array of voices asking for sizes 34 or 38. I gave everyone I talked to a pair of thermal socks and thermal underpants even if they hadn’t requested it. Individuals who were asleep on the sidewalk were silently slipped food and clothing items to discover when they woke up. Toward the end of the night, I stopped and chatted with a few men after our route was near completed and they had the greatest and most optimistic things to say.

There weren’t many homeless women on the streets, though we did have a plethora of women’s clothing, so we basically pampered one woman who approached our van. She tried a few articles of clothing on and modeled them for us, walking down the sidewalk while pretending it was her runway. I don’t remember her name, but her favorite color was pink. She had short brown hair. She was funny. She was grateful. She hugged us all before she walked away, new clothes in her arms. She humbled me.

It wasn’t menial labor, by any means. We’d make several stops in different locations around the city that were prominent because of their homeless populations, and our van would get flocked with around thirty people at each stop. All of the clothing was kept in cardboard boxes beneath our feet and we’d have to dig through them to find the size. When a man wanted a grey long sleeved shirt, we’d pull one out and have to show it to him, and if he said he didn’t like it, we’d have to sort through another box to find another shirt. You might say that they homeless, given their situation, shouldn’t be picky, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I sympathized with them and wouldn’t stop digging through boxes under the seats in the van until everyone was satisfied. It broke my heart when we ran out of what each person was looking for.

While it seems like a laborious job, I enjoyed the experience so much that after I graduated high school I returned to go on a second Midnight Run with the aforementioned teacher. This time, knowing what to expect, I motivated the group before our first stop and gave tips on how to interact with the homeless people. Working at the hospital wasn’t a good fit for me, so I’m glad to have found solace in the Midnight Run and to helping the homeless.

As mentioned in the article, a student commented on the skills they learned from service-learning: “The experience benefited me in improving my communication skills and leadership abilities.” After my experiences volunteering, I also ameliorated certain skills such as leadership, interpersonal, and teamwork skills. I can’t wholeheartedly say that working at the hospital didn’t teach me anything, but it did open me up to the concept of working with others. Still, volunteering on the Midnight Run solidified all feelings and expertise that was wandering in my potential.

Cress states that students taking a service-learning course managed to gain a new understanding of stereotypes and biases, one student specifically saying that “[they] learned to understand myself and to overcome a lot of biases I had toward the poor.” As an ignorant high schooler I always followed the belief that poor people, when requesting money, were going to blow it on alcohol the next chance they get. Having the opportunity to talk to them and see them on the streets (especially in January, when I went on my first run) opened my eyes and changed my outlook on the poor and on volunteering for others. This was the opportunity where I truly learned that one of the biggest equalizers of our society is when we share our life with others, rather than just stating it for an audience.

Photos from my first and last Midnight Run, respectively:

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