On service.
March 21, 2011

Awhile ago, I began reading a book that has opened up a can of worms in our home.  And the can of worms goes something like this: “if you and I do not raise Charlotte with not only an appreciation for what she has, but also a drive to make this earth a healthier place and to help people without the opportunities we can provide for her, have we failed?”

In other words, we’re talking about community service.

More specifically, Donald and I are trying to figure out how we can raise our daughter to take action when an environmental or social issue grabs her.  We are trying to determine which issues we feel most passionate about and how we can contribute to them as a family in tangible ways that Charlotte will understand and value from a young age.  We are looking for ways for her to contribute and, in so doing, build memories and habits that will carry her throughout her life.  We are trying to agree upon what our beliefs are, how we can instill them without shamelessly brainwashing or destroying the magic of early childhood, and how to incorporate service that goes beyond writing a cheque.  And we are trying to resolve how to transform service-learning into an integral aspect of our lifestyle without running off for ten years to a rural village in an impoverished nation.

The two of us want our daughter to feel confident that every action, no matter how small, helps.  We also want her to feel a sense of responsibility.  Our family is solidly middle-class, but middle-class America comes with privileges and opportunities that millions of people walking this planet never have access to.  The price of that privilege, of those opportunities, is community service.  It is speaking out for the ecosystems that have no voice, it is educating the individuals and communities that cannot rise above their circumstances, it is giving more than four hours a week (the American average) to help our fellow man.  We want to give of ourselves in radical ways, to push our family to leave the world a little better than we found it, and we want our daughter to appreciate this.

More than anything, we want Charlotte to feel connected to this world - to its habitats and its people - and we want to empower her to make a difference.

This is a hard conversation to have.  In establishing what we think and what we want for our family, our community, and our world, we have been forced to take a long look at the service projects we have engaged in previously.  We have been compelled to determine which tactics have a history of working and which do not, forced to consider ways that we can put ourselves in the shoes of others so that our family understands precisely what changes are needed and why, and forced to accept that sometimes our good intentions have harmed more than they have helped.

Another part of the conversation has, for us, focused on those aspects of our childhoods that shaped how we view community service today.  When I was a child, for example, one of my parents frequently volunteered in an educational capacity.  Because childhood is fundamentally self-centered and because this was an activity that I could not contribute to, I did not understand or value it.  It did not model or involve me in community service the way that picking up trash at the beach did.  On the flip side, my family only picked up trash at the beach once or twice a year, so the educational volunteerism introduced me to lifestyle habits that the infrequent beach clean-ups did not.

This is going to be a long-term discussion in my family, I CAN FEEL IT IN MAH BONES, so as my husband and I begin to feel our way through this I thought I’d turn the discussion to you.  How does your family engage in community service (if at all)?  What issues do you feel most strongly about?  How do you empower your children - or how did your parents empower you?


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  1. By Courtney L @ Bundle of Wonder on March 21, 2011

    Are you at liberty to say what book you read that started this conversation?  I ask because you mentioned “Healthy Child, Healthy World” in a previous post and I thank you for doing that!  It really opened my eyes and put all the research I was doing myself into one book.  Plus, when people ask me what’s my motivation for doing what I do, I can reference back to it.
    We don’t do much by the way of community service.  We both did more as undergrads because we were on campus more and heard about what was going on that way.  I watch maybe an hour or two of television a week (Wade watches a few shows, but records them to watch later) and we don’t get a newspaper so we are always out of the loop on what’s going on in our community.  We also don’t actively seek out opportunities ourselves.  Our parents didn’t/don’t and neither do any of our siblings.  Or our friends for that matter.  It’s not that we have never done community service, it’s just not something we get involved in very often.  There was a time when I was researching ways to get involved because I was inspired by a woman (Christina Blust…she’s utterly terrific and good), but I got pregnant soon after and I forgot all about it.  I do think community service is important (does that make me a hypocrite?!), but it’s hard to find opportunities here.  Plus with a baby and school I don’t know where I’d fit it in?  I know I’d like to volunteer with Harper at the children’s center when she’s older.  My mom did that with my brother and it opened his eyes to how good his life is.  I give you both kudos for this being such a high priority.  We pale in comparison, that’s for sure!  Maybe it’s different in California.  To me, people here (and I guess that includes us!) don’t take pride in their community.  Everyone bad mouths our city, even though it’s getting better each year.  I guess I’m just stumped as to where we would even start?  Sorry for the rambling comment!

  2. By Brigid Keely on March 21, 2011

    I grew up actively Catholic (as in, part of the community, Catholic school, involved in charity programs through the Church, etc) so out reach has ALWAYS been a priority. Food drives, soup kitchens, fund raising for the parish/parish school, school supply drives, food and gift box collections for a family at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas… it’s just what you DO, as part of the community, as a Christian. You feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, educate the ignorant, shelter the homeless.

    I’m not so active in the Church now, but I tutor math as an Adult Basic Education tutor at my neighborhood’s community center, which is a twice a week commitment. When our kiddo is a little older (he’s 2 right now) we’re going to involve him in taking part in things… food drives, neighborhood cleanups, trips to retirement homes, that sort of thing. There are some food pantries I’d like to donate time to, but we’re already stretched thin in that regard. I’m hoping he gets involved in Scouting or 4H or something… I’m very aware of the bias and prejudice associated with the BSA, but they do a lot of community service as well, so that’s another possible avenue for instilling the idea of service to the community in our boy.

  3. By Sarah Christensen on March 21, 2011

    Courtney - The book is called The Power of Half, written by Kevin and Hannah Salwen.  I’d like to finish it before I talk about it too much on my blog, but right now it’s been great for bringing up questions and making me think about community service projects with children - but the rest of it has been sort of mediocre.  The premise of the book is that one day Hannah Salwen, a teenager at the time, saw a homeless man at the same time that she saw someone driving a Mercedes.  It occurred to her that if the man in the Mercedes had a different car, the homeless man could have a warm meal.  When she said that to her father, her father pointed out that yeah, that was true, but if THEY had a different car, the homeless man could have a meal too.  Inspired by that conversation, the family goes on to reduce their consumption by half, eliminate half of their possessions, and sell their house.  They move into a house half the size of the previous one and give away half the sale proceeds to a charity called The Hunger Project which then uses the funds to support infrastructure growth and community empowerment and education in Ghana.

    It’s an interesting book from the standpoint that it brings up many a reasonable question.  On the other hand, the house that is half the size of their previous house?  Is still over twice the size of mine.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that a set of wealthy individuals did something extraordinary or anything like that, I just haven’t found the book to be particularly helpful in terms of paving the way for service projects with children in that: a) their kids were much older, and b) I do not have the resources they do.  When I finish it, I’ll know more about it.

  4. By Sarah Christensen on March 21, 2011

    Also, Courtney, part of the reason that the book has been a can of worms for us is that our service projects have taken a huge slide since having a baby.  For years, I was very active in local food service and at a nature center south of us, but when we had the baby we took a hiatus and although we’ve picked up some small stuff since, it hasn’t been on the same scale as before.

    I also don’t think that there’s much of a difference in the way people here look at service projects and the way people where you live do.  Here, my impression is that many people look at service as something that’s nice, but they don’t have time or money yet, maybe when they’re older or what-have-you.  Certainly people would rather write a cheque than get their hands dirty.  I think that’s a reflection of how our society as a whole thinks, but I also don’t think that we can change that unless we start by teaching different values to our children.

  5. By Lauren @ In the Pudding Club on March 21, 2011

    The girl scouts.  I was able to be actively involved in so many community service projects, and I can’t wait till my kids are “brownie/cub scout age”

  6. By on March 21, 2011

    I didn’t grow up doing any of that but I would like my children to grow up understanding and wanting to help in any way they see fit. The biggest thing is her seeing and watching and hearing you two. Obviously, at such a young age, it’s difficult to participate in a lot of organizations. Both as a parent and as a child. But, you can do things, like beach clean ups, by yourself. When you go to parks, spend 10 minutes just picking up trash before or after you play and talk about it as you normally would. It seems minimal but as she grows you will find more things to include her in. 

    If you include her in the conversations (what you are doing and why) she will probably pick up those habits and form her own as she asks more questions.

  7. By Tracy Roberts on March 21, 2011

    we should talk abou this in length, as I also used to do a workshop on this.  The key which I think you mentioned is in early childhood is it possible to make it meaningful to them.  I used to do homeless kits with the kids at my school, it is the ONLY thing I have found that had meaning to them.

  8. By Sarah Christensen on March 21, 2011

    Tracy - That has been an enormous part of the discussion for us.  A three-year-old isn’t the same as an eight-year-old or a twelve-year-old or a seventeen-year-old.  Our experiences with children in our lives has been different from yours in that we have always elected for environmental projects at young ages (2-5ish).  It took a few tries to figure out the sweet spot, but I would say that we finally found ways to connect the kids with the projects so that they were emotionally invested.  We haven’t ever tried large-scale social community service with young children (under about 8 or 9) simply because I never felt comfortable approaching it.

    I think with creativity and persistence, you can probably engage young children in either environmental or social service in meaningful ways.  At this point, we just don’t know where to start!  I’d love to bounce ideas off you next time we see you =)

  9. By Courtney L @ Bundle of Wonder on March 23, 2011

    “I think that’s a reflection of how our society as a whole thinks, but I also don’t think that we can change that unless we start by teaching different values to our children.“

    I think you’re absolutely right.  Very eloquently put, as always :)

  10. By on March 31, 2011

    I don’t think it’s always got to be something big like food drives or anything,... I think even small things like going for a walk and cleaning up garbage is community service.
    I’ve been trying to get back into that as well, as Nolan is almost 2 and I feel starting to understand and develop a lot of habits.
    I’m volunteering through my work, doing a 5Km walk, to raise awareness/money for Aids research as well as a Food drive in our community.
    I always take Nolan for walks to pick up garbage (treasures) that he would want to pick up and give to me anyways.

    To me, It’s not about contributing 1/2 of your possessions, or something so grandiose while I do consider that valiant, I think it is important to encourage people to do WHAT THEY CAN.

    Start small, keep working, helping, and enouraging others to start small as well.

  11. By on April 01, 2011

    Jen - I couldn’t agree more.  It’s the small bits of service that create lifetime habits, like picking up trash at the park.  Charlotte already knows when she sees trash out and about that we pick it up and throw it away =)  I think the reason that we’re talking about service is because we both believe that those small acts are wonderful, but we don’t think they’re enough.  They add up and we want to continue engaging in them, but we also want larger service projects to be a part of our family’s lifestyle.  We hope that when Charlotte is older, she will have seen from start to finish several small and large service projects and will be able to decide, then, what balance between the two is suitable for her life.  Whether we like it or not, our family is privileged beyond most individuals in the international community and, although we are middle class, beyond many of our fellow Americans.  We believe that the price of those privileges and opportunities is a service tax.  There are so many types of community service that it’s hard to say what we believe from there, but we do know that we want Charlotte to go above and beyond just picking up trash.  She doesn’t have to give away half of her net worth, but I hope that she does feel compelled to look at her life and see if she can do more than she is - and that we never forget to do the same.

  12. By Bee on October 17, 2011

    My family was rather poor when I was little.  My parents provided a helping hand for friends when it was needed, but that was it.  When I was in 8th grade, my mom & sister & I were visiting my grandparents (who lived in a different state, my dad couldn’t go because of work) for Thanksgiving.  Mom & I were driving (I don’t remember to where or why), and we saw a homeless guy with a sign that said “anything helps” on a corner at a stop light.  I was really upset.  I knew some people didn’t have homes, but I had never seen a homeless person or a person begging before.  I was distraught.  I begged my mom to take me to get him a sandwich and a hot coffee (it was very cold and he wasn’t wearing much).  She refused and said that there were too many people who needed help that we couldn’t help them all, and that we needed to help our own family because we didn’t have enough (I didn’t know it until I was 16 but my family was in a lot of debt and really was poor).  I was outraged and convinced her to go to McDonalds, but she missed the parking lot entrance and said it wasn’t worth fighting traffic to get back.

    When we got back to my grandparents’ house, I refused to eat dinner and said I wanted to know what it was like to be hungry like the homeless man.  My aunt (who is quite wealthy) said shame on me for stressing my mom out and that homeless people know that there are shelters and churches who will help them, especially around the holidays.  I was ashamed but really surprised by my aunt’s obvious dislike for people begging. 

    This experience really opened my eyes to people who are in more need and the massive inequality between classes in the US & the world.  What is considered middle class here, might be upper class somewhere else.

    I live in a small community and now frequently volunteer at our animal shelter.


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