A friend recently emailed me asking about my origins to come and volunteer here. I pointed him to the blog posts I wrote last summer as the disparate pieces fell into place. He persisted and asked if there was anything or anyone else inspiring me. And there is. R. Sargent Shriver. Some of you might be familiar with the name. He launched the Peace Corps for his brother-in-law and then-President Kennedy. Shriver also founded Legal Services for the Poor, Head Start, led LBJ’s War on Poverty and served as the US Ambassador to France. His life is one of service and if I hadn’t been listening to the radio one morning on my way to work, I might never have heard of him.
A year before I really decided to quit my job, I explored becoming a sign language interpreter. Inspired by my mother’s struggles with hearing and my family learning to sign as a way of “being part of the solution,” I began taking classes. On one of the very, very few days I drove to work (I commuted via the “L” every day) I happened to hear an interview with Sarge’s biographer, Scott Stossel. I was captivated by what I heard. I sat, parked in the car with the engine running for 20 minutes, and listened to the remainder of the conversation. I immediately had a model for the kind of service I wanted to undertake, and the type of impact I hope to have. I decided that come hell or high water, I was going, somehow, to follow in his footsteps. I immediately went to Borders and bought the book. I dove in and – as usually happens– I let other priorities creep in, and I put the book down. It sat on my nightstand for the next two years.
When the Jamaica opportunity presented itself and I packed up to leave, I tossed the book in my luggage, determined to finish it. I recently (read: finally) completed it. In a way I am happy I waited until now. It adds perspective and a new way of thinking to my choice to try and help where I can. Conversely, had I finished the book sooner, I might have arrived in Jamaica prior to last year or simply joined the Peace Corps. I don’t know why it wasn’t on my radar more as I weighed my options last summer.
Having read the entire book, and with a fuller understanding of exactly everything Sarge touched and impacted in his life, I start to wonder if my minuscule contribution makes a real difference. In those moments I am reminded of a conversation I had with my cousin-in-law, Conrad, at my sister’s wedding a few months after hearing that radio interview. As we were catching up, I shared the work I was doing as an artist-in-residence with a theatre arts program within an organization serving the mentally ill.
“Wow,” Conrad said. “That’s pretty amazing. You know, a lot of times in the summer I eat my lunch in a park near where I work, and I see people who seem out of it, or talk to themselves – who are probably mentally ill – and they come up and ask me for some change or something. So I give it to them because I want to help out a little. And it gets me down because there is such a huge problem in the world, what can I do to change it? I’m just Little ‘ol me.”
I think Conrad’s response is common. Some of the world’s challenges appear so intractable, it is easy to consider ourselves as too insignificant to make any real impact. And that’s a shame because we all have something to contribute; something we can do right in front of us to make a difference. For example, one of my favorite students is a girl whose tuition is covered by an overseas benefactor. However, she struggles to afford her books and often borrows her friends’ books to complete class assignments and study during her breaks and off periods throughout the day. She is terribly smart, and I always save her exams and papers for the end when grading because I want things to end on a high note. I don’t know who the benefactor is, and I doubt they have been here to meet this student, but their action directly impacts someone’s life. Little ‘ol them.
The same goes for those donating to support the orphanage connected with the Mission Society. Kids old enough to attend the school do so, and their reading and writing – and overall development – is more advanced than it otherwise might be. But the cost to house, clothe, feed, and educate them is high. Nonetheless, the money the Mission Society is cobbles together has very real impact.
I mention all of this for a few reasons. First, if you are looking for inspiration for how to be of service, look into the Sarge’s autobiography. It’s a bit of a tome – approximately 700 pages – but it reads quickly.
Second, “Little ‘ol me” can always have an impact. For example, when I shared the story of my book-borrowing student over Christmas, I immediately had offers to donate the money to buy them for her. In addition, a teacher I know in California (read: my sister) has informed me her class is going to hold a series of small fundraisers to pitch in. This isn’t Gates or Buffett money, but it has tangible impact on a need that is right in front of us. Not everyone has to quit their job and move thousands of miles away to help a stranger. It reminds me of the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love.”
Lastly, if you wonder what you can do, look around you and remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what’s possible; soon you are doing the impossible.” In the gospel Jesus says, “No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for a friend.” Here’s the secret about that: it doesn’t always mean jumping in front of a bus. Simply subordinating your own agenda and desires, even for a brief moment, to help someone else can be enough.
Give it a try. Then let me know how “Little ‘ol you” made out.