WRITING CONTEST WINNER FALL 2017
The Connotation of Community Service
By Nathalie Waldschmidt
Community service, as an institution, was formally established around 1914 (Chacin, 2015). While the denotation of community service has been consistent—helping others who are in need, the connotation of community service has transformed significantly. And not in a good way. Today, community service is widely viewed as a requirement; something that we have to do for a day to make us better human beings. Doing community service is more like a chore to enhance a resume or fulfill a course requirement, and too often, an offender is required to do it instead of going to prison. This shouldn’t be the case. I personally believe people should view community service as enhancing someone else’s life. After all, it should be a selfless act.
As part of the Honors Program at Monroe, I have been very active in several service events over the past three years. I cleaned the streets and parks of New Rochelle, danced with seniors, and dressed up as a witch for a Halloween party. All of these experiences have, without a doubt, shown me how important it is to give back to the communities we live in. But one recent experience made me rethink the term community service completely.
As part of the Honors Program Community Weekend 2017, I went to a charity in the Bronx to spend some time with children who are not able to live at their homes anymore due to family matters. I was told that some of these emotionally traumatized children had been placed in witness protection programs because their home environments were not safe enough; some parents were unable to care for them or they were sentenced to jail time. Unsafe and even violent home environments were the norm for some of these children.
I already had the privilege of running a very active field day at the same institution in 2016, and I was excited to go back this year. But I didn’t realize how different it would be. Instead of running around for two hours, we got to sit down with a group of girls, do crafts, and hear their stories. And this was the point where it became more than just community service. This is where my understanding changed, and I felt that I would never want to use that terminology again when spending time with children.
When asking them what they usually do on the weekends, one ten-year-old girl, Maria, told us that volunteer groups usually come in and play with them. Almost every single weekend. She has come to the understanding that people spend time with her because they have to do it as part of their requirements at school, as parts of their jobs, or because they feel they have to give back to the community. She said it with such sadness on her face. Her tone conveyed the disappointment that people were coming because they had to and not because they wanted to. This made me reconsider my purpose immediately. I even wanted to take off my shirt, which said “Community Service Weekend 2017” in big letters on the back. Because why should I tout doing good for others like it’s something special?
Maria made me realize that community service does not always have to be labeled community service. She has shown me that while people’s intentions might be to help others, she simply views the activity as people coming in to play with her because they had to. Therefore, the true value and meaning of community service has clearly gotten lost, and we should consider that this approach might create more damage than help when a young girl sees the world like that.
While there is no doubt that community service has become an important part of helping the community, school requirements and job applications have made it harder to recognize these good deeds. People should realize that going out into the community is so much more than just doing service. It means impacting another person’s life. Bringing a smile on someone’s face. Distracting people from their everyday problems. These are the merits of doing community service, not making a good impression on a resume. What really matters is the intention to help others and make their lives a little better for a bit. Maria has shown me that I never want to refer to community service as community service again. Because it isn’t work for me. I enjoy spending time with other people and bringing smiles to their faces. It is all about improving their days, and not about whether it makes me a better human being.
Chacin, N. (2015, September 18). A history of volunteering: Call to community service. Retrieved from http://business360.fortefoundation.org/2281/a-history-of-volunteering call-to-community-service