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When we talk about community service, does motivation matter?
I found myself asking this question as I compared my own youth volunteer experiences with the incredible efforts organized by kids not yet old enough to drive. The 12-year-old CEO of a recycling business. The 9-year-old skating pro helping low-income kids hit the ice. The 4-year-old who founded a food donation charity. In all cases, these remarkable children were inspired by a personal connection to their cause.
My own service was more low-key: Some time at a nursing home, talking to lonely residents; a season-long stint at a sports program for developmentally-disabled kids; food drives, etc. All of these experiences were ones that I stumbled into as a teen through my high school’s own service learning program. I participated because of a vague sense that, as a “good kid,” it was the sort of thing I should be doing and that, yes, of course, it would look good for college.
Between these two distinct types of volunteering experiences — the ones spearheaded by passionate, precocious kids and the ones that I participated in, I’d certainly prefer for my sons to have the former. Not because the kids’ efforts are dazzling whereas mine were fairly banal, but because the kids are passionate about their causes and I … well, I just wasn’t. As a result, my volunteer commitments were short-lived. I want my own kids to find and pursue community service opportunities with gusto. To discover something truly meaningful to them and stick with it.
To go into volunteer work half-heartedly, lucking into opportunities and taking them because of some vague notion that, as a good kid and a promising college candidate, that’s what you’re supposed to do … that’s never good, is it?
I prodded Colleen Wormsley, a marketing associate at the youth community service organization DoSomething.org, asking perhaps if there were kids who just shouldn’t go into community service. If a young person is only looking to check a box on a college application or meet some arbitrary criterion for success, should they bother at all?
I kept waiting for her to say, “Well, yes, community service isn’t for everyone.”
She never did. Instead, Wormsley politely explained that the good a young volunteer can do doesn’t rest solely on their original motivation. DoSomething even encourages volunteers with an incentive beyond the rewards of altruism — the chance to win college scholarships — along with plenty of volunteer opportunities that can include having fun with your friends.
“Each young person has their own reasons for giving back and making a difference,” Wormsley said. But some of those who start might find themselves falling in love with what they’re doing, she added.
“You learn more about the issue and that’s something that becomes a passion of yours … Everyone has their own motivations to start, we just want to make sure they keep going.”
The Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” I have to assume my own “little bits of good” did accomplish something — brightening the afternoon of an octogenarian confined to a wheelchair or helping a sweet girl learn to bowl while offering a break to her tired parents. But I never did fall in love with any of my volunteer projects.
I wonder now if only I had tried a few more, I would have found one that stuck — one that moved me. And then it wouldn’t have mattered that I started out just trying to fulfill society’s expectations for being a “good kid,” because I would have been making a big difference too.
Once my sons are older, I think we’re going to talk about volunteerism — about what they find interesting, what excites them about helping people, what problems they’d like to solve. We’re going to try to find projects instead of just assuming they’ll find us. I might mention that, yes, community service could bolster their college applications someday, but that’s no match for how the right community service project could bolster their souls.
And though I stopped short in efforts to find the project that resonated with teenaged me, I’ll emphasize that my boys needn’t make the same mistake.
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