After a very formative Alternative Spring Break experience, I have been thinking about service. I spent a week working with other Centre students in Chicago. We lived in the Darst Center, an organization that serves as a hub for service groups coming to learn about urban poverty.

The goal of the Darst Center is to promote learning by interacting directly with community members suffering the effects of poverty, homelessness, or both. We visited many organizations devoted to aiding these causes and helped at each one, learning how they functioned and speaking with the people who benefitted from the services.

This was one of the first times that I was encouraged to learn directly from the people affected by the services we were supplying. Our representative from the Darst Center, Josh, always invited us to ask questions of the people we were serving. I learned about their individual experiences and received a much better idea of what they needed from us after speaking with them.

It seemed that organizations that I had worked with in the past merely instructed the volunteers on what the people needed. They spoke about the people they were working with in the abstract: things that needed help. This was not meant to intentionally depersonalize them: it simplified the process of working with new volunteers.

Speaking of the issues and the people in this way was great for learning how to get tasks done, but made no progress in understanding the problems and effectively treating them.

Junior Morgan Whitehead pulls weeds at the Heart of Danville Spring Downtown Cleanup, helping to tidy up Constitution Square.

Junior Morgan Whitehead pulls weeds at the Heart of Danville Spring Downtown Cleanup, helping to tidy up Constitution Square.

I never felt like I understood the situation better than when I began. The issues still seemed like an impenetrable other that could never be solved, just managed piecemeal on a day-to-day basis.

My experience with the Darst Center and these new thoughts happened to coincide neatly with an article I recently read about a school service trip to a Third World country in which the group was required to build a house for a family lacking one.

The author wrote that her group had no experience with construction and spent the days molding and stacking mutant bricks that served no purpose. At night, men from the area would undo their misshapen efforts and reconstruct a neat substitute. The students in this scenario were receiving an experience of helping while actually hindering the community.

The community had the ability to construct houses more efficiently than the group of students; they would have been able to build the house much faster than having to spend hours undoing the mistakes of the well-meaning students. The purpose of their trip was not to actually provide service, but to provide for themselves the experience of serving others.

While this can be very important to those who benefit from the experience of serving, a meaningful experience for the volunteer does not necessarily help those in need.

I learned something from the Darst Center about the importance of taking a self-interest in doing service. I was at first confused at this — self-interest containing the connotation of selfishness — but it makes sense. By finding a form of service that coincides to your own interests and abilities, you can more efficiently act with the purpose of helping other people.

When a person pursues service in which they have self-interest, they are more likely to maintain motivation, focus, and enthusiasm. They will more likely to complete tasks to a higher standards. And they will be more likely to benefit from and love what they are doing.

We tend to overextend ourselves in terms of service. The world has many issues and it seems that society tells us that each individual needs to be eradicating all of them simultaneously. To do service in this vein would be maddening and ineffective.

If people spread themselves too thin, we would be addressing all these issues but not giving any of them the attention and depth that they need.

By focusing on only one or two issues that are important to you personally, you can serve in a manner that effectively and intelligently treats the problem.

Ideally, you would not have a food connoisseur go on a hunger strike or a skydiving enthusiast work as a miner. These tasks would be torturous, and while they might provide benefits, there are other people who are more excited about hunger strikes and mining.

In the same way, service does not have to be about sacrificing or doing tasks that are excruciatingly against your own interest. Service is not about martyrdom.

It can and should be something you enjoy and something you can do well.

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