Changing my attitude about community service

Julie Sisler

Editor’s note: This is a personal essay by Julie Sisler.

While in high school, we as students were barraged with reminders that community service looks good on college applications, opens doors for scholarships and sets you apart from other potential candidates. So much emphasis is placed on what you can tangibly get out of your service. Will it make you look better? Will it get you more money? Will it help you knock out competitors?

But what about what others get from your service?

Since middle school, my parents enforced the rule that Wednesday nights are to be spent volunteering at church. Maybe it was to make me a good Christian, maybe it was to look good to our fellow parishioners or maybe it was because they knew how good it would look on my college applications. Whatever it was, it was the rule that got me involved in volunteering.

Once I entered high school, I began working toward 50 hours of service each year in order to receive the silver service cord at graduation. This meant Wednesday nights at church, Saturdays spent at retreats, weeknights baking and organizing events and many summer days working at camps.

The older I got, the more obligations to service hours I had. I needed hours for Advanced Placement Government, National Honor Society and various other clubs and activities I participated in. Double dipping on hours wasn’t permitted, so it became a mad dash to find the quickest and easiest way to get as many hours as possible.

After each service experience, I was required to fill out a form detailing what I did, how it was beneficial and what I gained from it. Of course, I couldn’t write “I gained the service hours needed to get this cord.” or “I got my hours done for this grade.” Instead, I said things about the importance of helping others and how it was an eye opening experience. These are all true answers, though they weren’t coming from a genuine place.

The more I thought about it, I was giving back to get the cord, the grade or the recognition. When I was really honest with myself, I realized that I was giving back not for others, but for myself.

Sure, that probably sounds terrible. But to be honest, it was. I was acting as the epitome of a hardened, selfish, success-driven individual. I only gave for the purpose of gain. Which, in reality, isn’t really giving at all.

It wasn’t that I didn’t see the benefits of my actions on others. I knew the work I did was important and that community service is good for a wealth of reasons. It’s just that I let those reasons take a backseat to the reasons I could benefit from the community service.

Upon this epiphany, I realized I needed a change.  

I challenged myself to take on even more community service. Not for the recognition or extra credit, but for the opportunity to validate all the feigned answers I wrote about what I got out of my community service. I wanted to truly open my eyes, learn from others, and make a positive impact on the lives of those less fortunate.

I picked up more hours at church, found new organizations and spent extra time working with the charities I was already affiliated with.

Not to fulfill a cliche, but it was a truly eye-opening experience. Once I stopped viewing community service as a chore or task, it became something I began looking forward to each week.

I don’t think that community service is something that must be completely selfless, all the time. Your experiences can give you great networking opportunities, teach you important skills that you can put on your resume, and of course, they are sometimes needed to fulfill a grade or activity requirement.

However, those are benefits that should simply be a bonus in the grander scheme of things.

After altering my mindset, my involvement in community service became more genuine and, in reality, I got more out of it by focusing on what I could give, not get.

The point of community service is to give back to others. Once you see, and I mean genuinely see, the benefits of giving back, your own benefits will fall into place.

Until then, follow the words of Confucius and remember: “He who wishes to secure the good of others, has already secured his own.”

Features reporter Julie Sisler can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow Julie on social media at @julie_sisler.