“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” –Gandhi
Triangles, Gradients and Reciprocity
Volunteering is often considered a rite of passage coming into college—it is synonymous with Greek life, class credits and resumes. Because of society’s encouragement for young adults to go out and serve the community, the motives of volunteers are often questioned. It is easy to say that many students are just doing something because they need the credits or experience to make themselves look well-rounded. However, volunteering has never been a one-way street—it is never usually just giving.
This idea of reciprocity, for some, may seem counterintuitive to volunteering, but it is actually a key characteristic of it. In every exchange between people, something is gained, be it knowledge, experience and yes, in some cases, physical objects. Whether serving at a soup kitchen or in an office, the volunteer is gaining an experience they would not get anywhere else and that experience could be life-changing.
At the College of Charleston, the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) strives to create volunteering opportunities for students based on their Triangle of Good Service. The basis of this “pedagogy…is you have [to have] education, direct service and reflection for it to be quality community service,” Director Stephanie Visser explained. “If there is no educational content, context information [and] understanding before, then good direct service while you are there…then it is not actually good community service.”
Departments such as CCE aim to make volunteering a lifestyle for students, not just a one-time thing or habitual event that feels like a check off a to-do list. They work with students on an Active Citizen Continuum: an idea where everyone is placed on a hypothetical gradient. Beginning with where they are in terms of how much service they contribute to their community already and then from there, the idea is to work toward becoming an active citizen: someone who makes volunteering a “lifestyle and personal commitment to being invested wherever you are.” It is not about reaching goals or certain milestones by a certain time. It is about learning to create a lifelong impact based on your passions and interests in the world around you.
Having Charleston Hope
Charleston Hope began when Emily Hoisington was in high school. Her school denied her permission to begin a community service project geared toward providing Title I school kids Christmas gifts. Hoisington was not allowed to make fliers or even advertise. So she went around, one by one, and had people sign up to help. Charleston Hope was born–the organization is founded in “adopting” kids to provide them the materials they need and want. The first year this project was conceived, she was able to adopt 40 kids; during her freshman year in college, they were able to adopt 900 kids. It is now a non-profit organization widely known by locals.
Fueled by her faith and an inner passion for education and children, Hoisington has become a role-model for ideal community service in the Charleston area. “I think a part of your passion ends up serving,” Hoisington explained. The act of balancing whatever drives you personally with community service and “…being able to experience that in college and going outside of yourself [to do] that for others is an important life skill.”
Of course, founding a non-profit organization is not something many college students aspire to do. The lesson with Hoisington’s story is for college students to just get out and search—there are many opportunities in Charleston to create an impact and ones that can be a lifelong commitment. A stigma against the College seems to be that it is only full of spoiled, rich kids. The demographics of the College may support this stigma to an extent, but in terms of Charleston Hope, the bulk of volunteers at this organization has come from the College. Who is to say that “spoiled, rich kids” can not also have an eye for change and a heart for service?
Hoisington suggests that students focus on their passions and find out how to utilize them in the community. As someone who now searches for student volunteers she expects the applicant to be honest if their community service was to “fulfill a time commitment” but more importantly to see what they gained from that commitment if it was.
It does not matter where a student began on the aforementioned Active Citizen gradient—they could come from a well-off family in upper-middle class suburbia orfrom a poverty-stricken family who lived in impoverished neighborhoods. What matters is the impact students will make as an individual. Will they strive to move up that gradient or choose to stay where they are?
Will young adults open their eyes to the world around them to find the cracks and blemishes in today’s society and seek to fix them? Or will they stay blinded by the gilded or hidden characteristics of the world they were born into?
Vindicating the Bleeding Hearts
Just three blocks from the College there is poverty and need. Year after year, this city is voted as a top place in the world to visit for friendliness, tourism and beauty—which is great. However, do not let the cover of magazines and the rankings of computerized award systems take away from the truth of this community’s story. It is easy to walk among the weeping willows and peeling paint of historic homes and forget about the present state of society.
Open your eyes.
To the rich and poor, the bleeding hearts and the cold-hearted, the coddled and neglected—find purpose among your passion. Use it to ignite change and give a hand to those who have been left sitting on the curb for too long. Volunteering is not about forgetting individual needs or letting the problems in this world overpower personal ones. It is about knowing that every person’s problems is a part of the world’s problems as a whole. Every human is a part of society. Every person creates change and has an impact with every choice they make. There is no negative side effect to meshing passions with volunteering. The heart of being a citizen is knowing the role of individuality within a community and seeking to play that part.
*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.