By Kylie Hunter
Hello, my name is Kylie Hunter and over the course of the past year, I’ve discovered some ugly truths about community service. I encourage you to read this with an open mind – for when I first discovered these truths, it was hard for me to comprehend. It’s extremely difficult to hear that your “great work”, might not be so great after all. These truths are not meant to hurt your feelings, rather I bring them up, with the hope and intention to end the cycle of inadequate community service.
Before we discuss these ugly truths, here is a little background information on myself. I’m currently approaching the end of my first year at Drake University. Over the course of the past year, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to participate in the Engaged Citizen Corps – a program dedicated to service-learning. Through this program, I was offered an internship at Habitat for Humanity; here, I was able to examine the direct effects of community service. On campus, I’m also involved in Residence Life and a member of a business fraternity, this is where I had the opportunity to serve as the VP of Community Service. This position gave me the ability to test out some of the ugly truths in community service.
The main point of this blog is not to say that all community service is bad, in fact there are many forms of community service that are thriving. Instead, this blog is being written to inform oblivious, but well-meaning volunteers. So that these volunteers become well-informed and more aware of their impact.
Too often, our good intentions are used as excuses to avoid the task of truly examining the impact of our actions. Not examining this impact simply because we had “good intentions” is one ugly truth. When we don’t take the time to evaluate the impact of our service, we are not helping anyone. Unfortunately, this occurs far too often on both college and high school campuses, mainly because often times these institutions create a community service environment, in which service becomes just another “to-do”. Those hours may look great on resumes – but out of all those hours, how many do you think were actually impactful? Reflecting on my past volunteering experiences, with the knowledge I have now, I’m sad to say that many of my hours weren’t as impactful, as I would have liked to think they were. Of course, I had great intentions but since I never checked the impact my work, I was blind to the reality of my service. This occurs frequently in the world of community service. A real-life example occurs at an animal shelter, we go to this shelter and decide that our time would be best spent playing with the puppies and kittens. However, because of our intent to help these animals, we are blind to the fact that the animal shelter doesn’t need us to play with the animals, they really need help cleaning the cages, filing paperwork, and other unglamorous aspects of service. When we don’t check the impact of our service, we become selfish volunteers – this is why when we complete community service without checking its impact, those we are trying to help suffer.
Many times our community service contributes to endless cycles of reliance and poverty, this serves as a second ugly truth of community service. There is a parable that illustrates this concept, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish you feed him for a lifetime”. This shows the importance of service that works towards long-term solutions. I was able to experience this type of community service at Habitat for Humanity. One of Habitat’s mottos is “hand ups, not handouts” – this motto provides a standard that should be set holistically for community service. By giving hand ups instead of handouts, Habitat ends the cycle of poverty for individual families. Habitat homes are not just given out – the family has to pay for their home, go to financial workshops, and put in sweat equity; however, families do not go through this process alone, Habitat is always by their side. The unfortunate reality of this type of service is that, referring back to the parable, it is quicker to just give the man a fish. It is an investment, sometimes of both time and resources, to teach the man how to fish, but it is worth it. So do you let the man starve as you try to teach? No. That is why short-term community service is still needed; however, we should always be trying to think of how our service can be altered to create long-term change.
So there you have it, those are just a few of the ugly truths of community service. I hope that these truths empower you to make your community service experiences even more, impactful and long-lasting. While working together and changing our mindsets, we can use community service to make a meaningful difference in our world.