On this national day of service in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s worth noting that there are many ways to serve. The pandemic may leave you feeling at loose ends without the familiar avenues in which to engage with the community. Like all change, a lack of the usual avenues brings an opportunity to shift, explore, expand, and learn.
When I’m not sure how best to contribute to improving my community, I look backward at the things that have influenced, bolstered, and supported me. This list will always include books. Books gave me a view of the world outside of my family and our surrounding small town.
This opening to the larger world help me gain perspective on my experience using knowledge that was out of the reach of my environment. I have relied on my ability to use resources beyond myself to gain insight, maintain balance, agglomerate encouragement, and amass courage. Books allowed me to envision possibilities I never would have otherwise imagined.
Words and stories create narratives that shape the future. Writing can be of service.
When I look back at my decision to start my first business, I think of the office my grandfather set up when I was four or five in an outbuilding behind my great grandfather’s house. By that time, the house itself was rented to strangers, but the outbuildings and farmland were his to tend.
Directly behind the house was a long series of rooms each opening to the yard, unconnected to the one on either side except for a common wall. I don’t know the original purpose of these rooms, but my grandfather designated one as our office. In it, he put a wooden table, chair, typewriter, and adding machine. With adhesive letters, he added our names to the door – his, and mine.
My dad also owned a small business. While much of what I know about running an enterprise comes from working for him, the vision of my name on that office door is what I think of when someone asks my how I had the courage to go out on my own. My grandfather took me with him to vote and let me pull the levers. He took me with him to Lions Club and to meet the governor. He sent me door-to-door to campaign for him without adult supervision when I was eight and he ran for state representative.
Repeated acts treating me as though I belonged in the room or on the campaign trail just like any trusted adult imparted the ability to trust myself and believe I am a valuable team member even in rooms that are filled with men. There were many forces that attempted to undermine me during those years, but my grandfather consistently set me up for success.
I can think of no greater service to a child’s success, or to an adult’s for that matter, than repeatedly and consistently treating them as a competent and important contributor.
My grandmother modeled service in other ways. On Sunday afternoons, she visited older relatives in long-term care. At least once a month, I was expected to go with her. I remember the smell of urine hanging in the air as I walked down the halls. When I took over the care of my mother’s cousin in 2016, it was with that model in my head.
My family lived on a farm. About halfway to our dirt road was another road of farms. On that road was a large, once impressive house that was now slowly rotting, sagging, and falling apart. Mr. Green, the sole occupant, had no means of support and no car. About once a month, my grandmother and I would go to the grocery store, buy groceries, and deliver them to Mr. Green.
What my grandmother provided was a lifeline Mr. Green could count on. The security of knowing she would show up was as important as the staples in the grocery bag.
Small, consistent acts of kindness may not make headlines, but they make a difference.
When I look to improve my community, I also rely on my strengths and experience to create opportunities.
Organizations often need some particular expertise. I have edited newsletters, designed invitations, and worked the door of events. I created recipes and did a cooking class for disabled students soon to be heading for college. I’ve also connected a lot of people with new sources or new jobs.
Many nonprofits need someone to enter and maintain data. If you’re good at details and software, this could be an avenue for contribution even while staying home.
Never underestimate the power of kindness. Fresh baked cookies left on a neighbor’s porch, cards sent for no particular reason, or a regular Saturday morning phone call can all have more impact than you may imagine.
Sometimes I feel motivated if I am serving a goal more specific than improving my community. Perhaps I will act in service of peace, or gratitude, or inspiration. Perhaps I will act in service of improved health.
Improving one thing about which you’re passionate will contribute to bettering the community as a whole. And if each of us follows different passions, growth will expand in many directions. In this, with consistent, continued practice, we’ll learn that the whole becomes better when we all contribute.
Choose one thing that will better someone else’s life. Practice that thing consistently. This is the definition of service. There are many ways to serve.