About a week ago it was “Make a Difference Day” around the U.S, the national day of service. People are encouraged to join together; invest time and talent in their communities. This is a great idea. People are encouraged to engage, to step outside of themselves, link arms with others and spend a few hours “making a difference” in their community. This day has the potential to foster new friendships and partnerships for ongoing volunteer engagement. It has the potential to really “make a difference” in the lives of both the one served and the one being served. But I’m wondering, after observing activities in my community, exactly how is that potential realized?
Here’s what I observed. About 400 volunteers filled the neighborhood around my office, which is downtown in a low-income, plighted neighborhood. Most residents are renters. Most homes and apartments are run down and unkempt. The day started at the local elementary school, where a new section of sidewalk is going to be put in by volunteers in a few weeks (on “Serve Fresno Day”). Our mayor was there to kick off the festivities. She asked the approximately 50 children how many go to this school. Just a few raised their hands. Then the children present, almost all from north, suburban schools, got to decorate tiles that would become part of the new sidewalk at the urban neighborhood school. Throughout the day volunteers in bright green shirts cleaned up our streets, pulled weeds, participated in some needed repair projects. For local residents, from what I saw and heard from participants, it was pretty much business as usual for a Saturday (except I did notice a few more yard sales in front yards).
So after observing some of these activities today first hand in my community, I was left asking myself some unsettling questions. What do residents think when people they’ve never met converge on their neighborhood to clean up trash and pull weeds they’ve been walking past for a year? And what happens inside the heart of a volunteer after they spend hours cleaning up the streets for people who are wandering by, watching them work?
I still have more questions than answers, but when I reflect on the kind of volunteer service that I am sure DOES make a difference, a few things do come to mind:
• It is service that does things WITH rather than FOR people
• It is service that allows people to interact and begin relationships
• It is service that is ongoing, will be sustained or continued by the recipient when the volunteer service provider is gone
• It is service that has the potential to keep growing. There is a way for the friendships that have been sparked, between volunteer and agency or client and volunteer, to continue, to grow, to multiply and become more relationships, more volunteer hour, and deeper commitment to community and kingdom.
• Finally, it is service that is disturbing and unsettling (I’ll write about this in my next blog post)
For volunteer service to “make a difference,” in the church, local community or on the international mission field, what characteristics do you think must be present?
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