When was the last time you heard someone say they were excited to volunteer? Typically, we see volunteering as a professional or moral obligation—to beef up resumes, build our networks or act out of gratitude or guilt for the privileges we possess.
None of these are bad motivations. On the contrary, it shows that society values altruism, empathy and generosity.
But when volunteering is an “ought,” it can turn into just another commitment on our overcrowded calendars. This can also hurt those who should be benefiting from our service. No one wants to feel helpless or like a burden.
What if we could turn volunteering into a “want”? What if we learned to see volunteering as an opportunity to gain the kind of humility and hope it takes to be fully human?
When I started volunteering at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center as a freshman in college, I had the typical “ought” mindset. I genuinely cared about the teenagers there and wanted to make a difference, but out of a desire to alleviate my guilt over my fortunate circumstances.
Either way, after four years, I can safely say I walked away humbled by all that the teenagers had taught me. Here are just a few lessons I learned at juvie that turned my volunteering from an “ought” to a “want”:
1. The deepest compassion often goes unrecognized. Although I do not often admit it, I like being seen as a compassionate person. It was not until I volunteered at the Juvenile Detention Center that I learned what true compassion looks like. The young men and women I met there have every excuse to be self-absorbed given the unexpected trauma they have endured. Yet they still worry about their mothers, younger siblings and communities. They long to support people who are struggling and create a better future for the next generation. These teenagers may never receive recognition for their quiet compassion, yet they persist in loving deeply.
2. True strength is not the absence of weakness. As I hear more and more stories from justice-involved youth, I have become increasingly heartbroken by the level of suffering most have had to endure. Whether the cause is abuse, poverty-induced stress or mental illness, many of these teenagers bear the scars of the deeply unjust world they inhabit and are now being punished for acting out under circumstances in which no child could be expected to succeed. Despite the bleak statistics surrounding youth with criminal records, these teenagers are determined to create new lives for themselves after their release. They have plans to attend college, start businesses and mentor youth. Although I mourn the hardship they have had to endure, their resilience has shown me that they are not defined by their pain. They have passions, insights and persevere in the face of obstacles that will make them an asset to any community or workplace that gives them a shot. Witnessing their strength has encouraged me keep fighting through my comparatively small struggles, helping me see trials as opportunities to grow in resilience.
3. I want to devote my life to fighting for those who have been incarcerated. During my time volunteering at juvie, I not only learned important character lessons, but also changed my life trajectory. The more time I spent at the facility, the more I grew upset and frustrated with the serious, life altering consequences that those teenagers face for having the bumpy adolescence typical of most kids. As a result, I decided to work for ServiceWorks, a professional development program for at-risk youth ages 16-24. Now, I return to the Juvenile Detention Center twice a week as part of my job to work with the young men there on the soft skills necessary for college and career success. Thanks to volunteering, I learned to care for a population to which I had never been exposed, a population whose hardships make me cry and whose potential fills me with awe and hope.
These lessons and more marked my transition from volunteering out of obligation to volunteering for the sake of learning and growing. I hope that you, too, learn your own set of lessons from volunteering and experience the joy that comes with knowing and appreciating those with different backgrounds and stories.
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