Stephanie Yu is the Executive Director of Volunteer West Virginia. This is the first of many “From the Director’s Desk” blogs that she will be writing on a regular basis.
I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on Service and Volunteering in New Orleans in June. Let me say up front that I had a good time. I found the conference informative and engaging. I met a lot of amazing people and learned a lot. It’s hard not to be inspired by what people are doing across the country, and the commitment they have to their communities. Also, New Orleans, in case you haven’t been, is a pretty fun city. A little music, a few beignets, a hurricane or two (the drink, not the storm) and it makes for a pretty good week.
I sat in the glitzy opening ceremony, as one celebrity after another paraded across the stage, and I found myself thinking back a month earlier to the May 12th Mountain State Leaders celebration. Mountain State Leaders is a yearlong planning and training process that leads up to a service project designed and implemented by small groups of AmeriCorps members, and the celebration is the chance for members to present on what they’ve accomplished. I couldn’t help but compare the two events. The Mountain State Leaders celebration was not glamorous, there was no light show, many of the people speaking were obviously uncomfortable speaking to the 150 other members. There were no teleprompters, no politicians, no adorable 5-year-old drummers. It was an old room, hot, crowded, the computer equipment didn’t always work properly. But here’s the but – I walked out of that celebration that day feeling energized, feeling inspired- thinking to myself, this is AmeriCorps in West Virginia. This is what it means to take a deep breath and get involved. The service projects reflected the diversity of the participants – urban, rural, old, young, some impacting many people, some just a handful. These service projects provided teenage mothers with needed supplies, planted trees on old strip mine sites, honored veterans, and created healthy eating programs for children. But as I walked out of the opening ceremony in New Orleans, holding my bag of free gifts and with my ears ringing from the 50 member band, I didn’t feel nearly as inspired as I did a month ago.
One celebrity or policymaker after another got up and told us all how wonderful we are for all we do for the community. And I do think our members and volunteers are wonderful. But here’s the thing: what I really want is for all of them to be less wonderful. What I want is for them to be ordinary. I want what they’re doing to cease to be something special, but to become something so much a part of everyone’s life that it stops being noteworthy. That we all, here and now, commit to engaging, to participating in whatever way we can, in an ongoing way, not on AmeriCorps’ terms, not on Volunteer West Virginia’s terms, but on each of our own terms.
So I don’t think we’re all saints, including those of us from Volunteer WV. Contrary to what a famous musician said in New Orleans, I don’t think that each of us wakes up every morning with one single thought: how can I help people today? The first questions I think of most mornings go more or less in this order: What time is it? What will I wear today? Am I late? How long will my daughter sit on the potty before she actually uses it? What will we have for dinner? Somewhere further down that list is “what do I need to do at work today?” and on a very good day “how can I do my job well today?” (which I think does lead back to the original question of how can I help people today, but it takes me a while to get there).
So the goal is not for all of us to be endlessly devoted to community service and helping others. I think the real goal is to make some time for it, and to consider it in the decisions that we make.
I can’t make people saints, and I can’t promise to be one. What I can offer is this: that Volunteer WV will strive to provide the support and the tools you need to make your ideas and your vision reality. I can tell you that we will tell everyone we know what you’re doing, and make an effort to connect you to others who can help.