Monday, March 17, 2008

The Challenges of Community Service

Having now returned from New Orleans and spent some time reflecting on the past week, I've decided to post my own thoughts onto this public forum.

I once read: "Community service is very much a two-way street. It is about giving and receiving, and the receiving can be nourishing for the heart and mind. The very act of serving taps into a wellspring of empathy and generosity that is both personally gratifying and energizing." It cannot be denied that in serving others, we ultimately serve ourselves.

From our high school days, we grapple with how to apply for college and scholarships or find jobs. We've been taught that fame and recognition are the important things in this life and as a result, many of us decide that meager efforts to help the elderly across the street a few times, singing at a retirement home once, or baby sitting the retarded child down the street makes us deserving of rewards for "making a difference" in our community. My point is not to be cynical nor to bolster myself (well, maybe to take a crack at some of the students I met). On the one hand, it is human nature to seek appreciation and distinction for our efforts. But just as importantly, if not more, society could not function without community service. It teaches that values and communities are not innate, but created through action. It allows for an understanding about each other and builds a sense of human compassion. On an individual level, it provides real-life experience that helps to develop leadership skills, self-esteem, and other personal characteristics. It is little wonder that both our Congress and leadership abroad have flirted with the idea of requiring students to fulfill a number of service hours as a graduation requirement.

I spent much of my week working on a "menial" task - scraping paint and rust off an iron fence. It was a far cry from what I hoped, or perhaps expected, my week to involve. I did very much envy those in my group that got to tear down walls or paint a house. When asked about my trip since I have returned, it has been hard to explain or even justify the work I did. During the first half of the week, we worked for a gentleman who had purchased the plot next to his home and was seeking to use it as a rental property. Bluntly speaking, we worked on property that was going to be used for profit. I saw houses that had remained untouched since Katrina. Attempting to find the "good" in such work was...hard to come by. But I also refused to stop what I was asked to do. As a result, I spent my week quite isolated and alone with my thoughts. It was my mistake, perhaps, in not allowing myself to join my classmates and work with the group. But within my thoughts, I ultimately found myself coming to one overreaching conclusion - what if this was my house? Could I walk away knowing I could have done it better? Wouldn't I want the person helping me to feel the same way? Perhaps this is the perfectionist in me speaking and ultimately I recognize the vice it can be.

On a tour of the 9th ward we were shown a "green house" that would serve as a home and was built of eco-friendly products that sought to reduce the carbon footprint it created. Two and a half years post-Katrina, the house was not yet complete. I found myself thinking - how much do these residents care that their house is "eco-friendly," they don't have a roof over their heads. However, given that we have the chance to rebuild, does it not make sense to do it right?

I will not deny that people are doing what they can when they can. So for those who live here, some construction is better than none, whatever form it takes. But when it's all destroyed, we’ve got a chance to make things right, not just to replace what was there. We're already spending a tremendous amount of money fixing things. But is fixing the old (and decidedly flawed) the right way to get a community back in shape?

How silly this must seem - all this attention for a fence. However, I walked away knowing I did the best I could. And that's enough for me.

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