More than 50 years ago, the Founders of Episcopal School of Jacksonville had a vision. Their vision was NOT of a school that produced doctors and nurses, engineers and business executives, entrepreneurs and inventors, lawyers and politicians, athletes and artists. Their vision was not about what the students would become; their vision was about who they would become. In one of the founding documents, affectionately known as the Purple Book, the vision is clearly for the school to “develop doers of good and leaders of men [and women].” It goes on to describe how being doers of good and being leaders means that our students will go on to make their world a better place through their care and concern for others.
Today, we still hold true to this vision, and here is why.
Getting outside ourselves. One of the greatest benefits of engaging in community service is getting outside of ourselves. Daily living is very busy - for us and for our children. School, homework, sports, the arts, and all the extracurricular activities and responsibilities take up so much of students’ time and energy. They must learn to manage their time and make choices about what they must do and what tasks can wait until later. Then comes the obstacles which all of us face at certain times. Our lives are filled with challenges and struggles, which bring our focus even more on our inward journey. How will I navigate through these obstacles? Why is this happening? What must I do? Human beings are tempted to see only their own circumstances and that of their immediate circle of family and friends.
Service opens our eyes and hearts to the needs of others. For example, when a teenager volunteers at a nursing home, they encounter a world that is foreign to them in many ways. Young people often have never thought about the physical decline of their body or grieve the loss of their mental agility. Young people do not suffer from loneliness and isolation to the degree that so many of the elderly do. Usually, young people do not look back on their lives with longing for happier times before their loved ones had died. When youth volunteer with people whose story is different than their own, they see things differently. Their focus is shifted from themselves to the care and concern for others. At any age, a richer life is experienced when we seek to understand others’ stories.
Become consciously engaged in the world. Over the past three or four years, we have had many drives to collect supplies for hurricane victims. As strong storms have slammed parts of our state and country, we have responded as a community collecting everything from toiletries and baby diapers, to canned food, to pet supplies. We have done this very successfully. But after we drop off a trunk full of diapers and baby wipes, do we ever think about those families again? Do we contemplate what it feels like to lose everything in a hurricane and to try to survive in a shelter?
At the beginning of this year, we once again had a major hurricane collection drive for those impacted by Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle. We were asked to collect baby items, and we did so in abundance. However, it was time to take the next step to be consciously engaged in the plights of the people in the Panhandle. In just two days, we organized a group of 32 students, parents, faculty and staff to head over to Panama City and the surrounding area. While there, we drove through neighborhoods where houses were flattened and the family was living under a tarp. We handed out food, supplies, and ice to people who did not have electricity and would not for months. We heard the stories of people who were volunteering at the same distribution sites as us who had lost everything they owned. For many of us on this trip, we were forced to be consciously engaged in the lives of others as we saw their situations first-hand. We listened to the stories and were moved by compassion. Our own lives were forever altered.
Using personal gifts and talents. Young people can become passionate about service when they are able to use their personal gifts and talents to connect with how they serve others and their community. An artist may beautify a dark and dingy institution where troubled youth are finding refuge. An athlete may become the arms and legs for a paraplegic wishing to play a sport. A faith-filled teenager may lead his peers at a spiritual retreat. A bright and gifted chemistry student may give her time to tutor those who are struggling in a class. Ask your student, what are you passionate about and how can you use your gifts to serve others?
When students have the opportunity to look beyond the self-centered world of adolescence, they encounter stories and circumstances they never imagined before. Their hearts are transformed as they seek more opportunities to help others and heal the world. Community service benefits all who choose to give of themselves in this way. It builds relationships with those who are served and those who serve alongside. It builds relationships between communities of people who get to know each other's histories. It heightens our vision to see the needs of others while transforming our hearts to act when we see a need. As Robert Coles says in “The Call of Service,” our young people who serve find “the enthusiasm and pleasure, the exhilaration that accompany action taken, and the consequences of such action” in making our community - our world - a better place.