Ask not what your service can do for you

Why we serve the community is just as important as which community we serve.

By Grace Koh

“So, what time is it?” I ask for what feels like the 100th time. My fingers tighten around the cardboard yellow clock propped against my chest as I tell myself over and over again to be patient. The little girl stares blankly at the clock I’ve set to 11:15 and, after what feels like eternity, answers, “3:55?” I take a slow breath and explain to her once again that the small hand points to the hour and the big hand points to the minute. Eventually she says she’s too tired to work, and I feel the same way.

Week after week I volunteer with special needs students at the local elementary school, reinforcing the same topics to the same kids again and again. I’m no longer discouraged. At this point, I’m just exhausted. With internship season ripening and the quarter in heavy bloom, I seriously question why I ever trudge my way over there after class.

I, like everyone else on campus, only have so much time to give. What if I partnered with a bigger organization to fundraise for clean water around the world or for computers in rural China, bringing in actual money and seeing actual progress? Isn’t that more worth my time than this mundane tutoring position, where all I do is walk through multiplication problem after multiplication problem with kids who don’t even seem to care?

Countless nonprofits and student organizations on campus battle for my time. People around me are shoving a million causes, goals, and strategies of all different shapes and sizes in my face. Suddenly I find myself comparing movements and organizations, choosing the ones I think are more worth fighting for.

Tutoring? That’s nice, but how about being on the front lines of the fight for social justice as an intern for the Immigrant Justice Center?

Perhaps I just wasn’t passionate about my work with special needs students anymore. Honestly, the only things keeping me in that classroom were the pressure to stay true to my commitments and the idea that caring about equality for people with disabilities had become part of my identity. When people made an insensitive joke about disabilities, my friends all looked to me to say something about it, and I reveled in having a unique passion.

But something felt lopsided, and I noticed that I was making what was supposed to be a selfless process all about myself.

The first time I ever walked into a room full of children with disabilities, I felt awkward helping a girl use the restroom and uncomfortable when she flapped her arms and sang in my face. The first time I ever walked into that room, I didn’t know how to respond. But the first time I worked with that girl, I was also humbled as I watched her finish a complicated jigsaw puzzle in less than a minute. It was then that I realized that her persistent mumbling was actually a recitation of the entirety of Toy Story 3. In that first glimpse of insight into the girl’s idiosyncrasies, I realized that though she may process and communicate differently, she deserves to have someone spend the time to really understand her and help her learn in her own way.

With no promise of glamorous moments to satisfy my need to feel important, my ego induced an apathy that infected the way I strived to build relationships with people with disabilities. I forgot the day-to-day reality of what I had signed up for, the way I was striving to learn to understand and care about people who were different from me. I may invest four years in tutoring the same child and not necessarily see dramatic change. It’s very possible that I may never have one of those Lifetime movie moments in which, through love and perseverance, I see someone’s life change. But it’s absolutely impossible for change to happen without true empathy—the full commitment to another person, regardless of what I might get out of it.

Recognizing my self-centeredness and reorienting my motivations had a very real influence on my actions. I was a much more effective tutor, and focused more on building a relationship with a specific student rather than looking for whoever needs the most help on a given day, whoever was most likely to deliver the moments I used to crave.

There are many reasons to do community service, but I learned that many of them are not the right ones. Passion for community service should not be centered around the glory of work bearing fruit, but rather a genuine desire to care manifested in action. I could quit tutoring and invest all of my time in a more immediately gratifying cause simply for the sake of that gratification, but I know I would not feel true empathy for the “poor, neglected people” I was helping. They would be a means used for my gratification, not human beings for whom I care. It may seem like only a minor theoretical difference to you, but I believe that this is the difference between charity and change—not only for the world, but for myself.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.