If I’m being completely honest, I had never actually cared about community service until I joined SLS. I had done it plenty of times before. I had volunteered at the children’s library and walked dogs at the animal shelter and volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club of America, and at the end of each day that I volunteered, I logged my hours and then went home and felt good about myself for Doing Something that day, and never gave it much thought after that. I always excused my lack of effort in community service to being young and immature. Plus, people who do volunteer work are just better, right? I’m just a person; I can’t be perfect. I do enough for the people around me.
It’s easy to care about the people closest to you. It’s easy to have limitless compassion for anyone who you’ve loved, or for the people who raised you or helped you through a tough time. It’s easy to want to help the people who you relate to and whose faces you recognize. The people who make you smile. We feel a responsibility for the well being of the people who surround us. For most people, this circle of responsibility extends to immediate family and friends. These are the people whose expressions we can read, who we ask, “are you okay?”, who we would take into our own homes, into our own rooms, into our own beds if they needed us.
Before I came to SLS, my circle of implied responsibility extended to my parents, my brothers, and my three best friends. I cared about everyone I met enough to want to make them happy and to understand their perspective in life. But if they were in a tough position, I wouldn’t have felt any obligation to help. After all, I don’t know you that well. I don’t know what your life is like. And I’m here, and you’re there. You’re the one who doesn’t have a home, or food, or a way to find a job or wash your clothes. We’re not friends. Why should I help you?
Something happened to me during my week of SLS. It wasn’t a spontaneous shift, and parts of it weren’t perceptible to me until the week was over, and I was sitting in my dorm room wondering why I had been so sad to leave. It was series of little moments that paused my life and made me sit introspectively inside of them for minutes at a time, weighing their meaning, pondering and feeling, and eventually moving on with a lesson learned. Like drops in a puddle creating a lake, I left SLS not only with a vast expanse of knowledge I wouldn’t have found anywhere else, but a giant pool of compassion not just for the people closest to me, but for all other humans.
I think that the first time I really felt it was during Potluck in the Park. Potluck in the Park is a huge operation. They serve hundreds of people every single Sunday, and they have for the past 25 years. It isn’t a simple action of handing off food and then packing up, though. Potluck in the Park harbors a sense of community. People helping are intermixed with people being helped. Some people who don’t currently have homes help with unpacking food and washing containers, and then they get in line to eat. There’s no definitive line where “homeless people” begin and “people with homes” end. For my part at Potluck in the Park, I stood in the blazing sun for hours chatting with people and handing out taco salad. It was sweaty, and it was fatiguing, and it was wonderful. There was a shift in my heart when I looked into the eyes of the people who I was serving. It was like I could see myself in them, or I could see my older brother or my mom or my best friend. It felt like a human connection. It felt like I could’ve been the one who was being served, and this person would stand in my shoes and gladly scoop food onto my plate. I was so incredibly proud, in that moment, not just of myself, not just of everyone in SLS for helping at the event, but of everyone there, serving or being served, for working together and being caring members of society. For me, the barrier between “helping” and “being helped” broke down that day. My circle of people who I care about started inching into wider and wider ranges.
The other students in SLS inspired me too. They didn’t just inspire me, but they pushed me. The sense of community within the group was palpable. I had never met a more inclusive group of people. No one got left by the wayside. No one was forgotten. There were no cliques or senses of elitism. This is something that could feasibly be expected from a group of people who have lived with each other for their whole lives, or are related, or have some sort of implied obligation to each other. But we, as kids in SLS, were a group of singular people who all came from different places and had completely different lives. Different homes, different people we loved, different experiences, different pasts. Why should any of us have cared about anyone else? But we helped because we understood. We felt that obligation because we knew how it felt to be far away and without friends. I was pushed to new limits of caring in SLS. The other group members were constantly reminding me to invite everyone on a hike, to include everyone in conversation. I was a stranger, too. I was 2,268 miles away from home, stressed as hell, and I knew no one. But that 4-H camp in the middle of Oregon that I had never been to before already started feeling like home, because I never felt alone at SLS. It’s easy to gloss over the minor details of a trip like that, but I think even the seemingly insignificant interactions matter. It’s a compilation of all of those details that make a person feel cared for.
Since I’ve gotten back from this trip, I feel that all I can do is implement the lessons it taught me into my own life, and thank the people who made SLS possible. Now I feel an obligation towards other humans like I’ve never felt before. I feel an obligation to be a part of my community and to consider every position that I could be in before becoming too secure in my own. I don’t care about first impressions as much as I used to, and I think that everyone is worth getting to know better. I value human connection above everything else. I think that it’s my job as a human to help out other humans when they need it. And it’s my hope that those humans would do the same for me.