A couple years ago, when my daughter turned 8, my husband and I held a birthday party for her in the backyard. We had invited about 15 or so kids, assuming about two-thirds of them would actually show up. Imagine our surprise when not only did every single invited guest arrive, but some brought siblings. And every one of them arrived with a present.
It was a literal embarrassment of riches. I’ll never forget watching our daughter unwrap her third Wonder Woman doll — a hot item at the time — and throw it on the pile containing every toy she had wanted and then some. My husband and I felt humbled by the abundance our child had received, but also disgusted. None of the items in the pile had been truly needed. Why hadn’t we thought to tell people not to buy presents? It was just three months after an even more abundant Christmas had left us wondering what more a child of 8 could possible want or need.
There was only one thing she needed: perspective.
As we joyfully celebrated her birthday, it seemed the world around us was falling apart. Internally, I had been wrestling with a growing anxiety about the state of the world. Fires and floods were decimating whole towns. A gunman entered a high school in Florida and killed 17 people. Here, we were safe and healthy and enjoying lives of plenty, with a new home and an entire room devoted just to my daughter’s TOYS, for God’s sake, but it all felt as if it could disappear at any moment. I could point to nothing wrong in my life, so why did I feel miserable?
As I prepared dinner one night, I confessed my feelings of hopelessness and helplessness to my husband, as well as my confusion about having these feelings in light of our relative abundance. And as usual, he offered helpful advice: Perhaps doing something, putting something good into a world gone mad, would help me regain some peace of mind. After all, he whispered as we watched our daughter playing a game on her iPhone, there was an 8-year-old in the house who could use a lesson on how good we had it.
So we sentenced ourselves to community service. As a family, we would take more opportunities to help others. We couldn’t fix the problems of the world, but we could, in a small, small way, be part of making it a little better. And I would write a Reno Moms Blog post intended to inspire others to serve their communities and to keep us accountable to our own commitments.
I put a call out on Facebook asking for suggestions about ways our whole family could regularly perform community service. What organizations would allow and be appropriate for an 8-year-old and her parents to give time on a regular basis? I was flooded with ideas, and before long we had several months’ worth of commitments line up. We booked time to make dinner for families at the Ronald McDonald House, to serve dinner to the homeless in a downtown parking lot, and to clean our local park.
We witnessed families in tears, enjoying the dinner we’d prepared as they prayed for their sick and hospitalized children. We handed plates piled high with food to Reno individuals experiencing homelessness, who thanked us profusely, shook our daughter’s hand, and sat on the ground to eat it. We spread peanut butter and jelly on hundreds of slices of bread that wound up in bag lunches distributed to the hungry folks living on our city streets. And we beamed with pride over the beauty of our local park, after we spent three hours cleaning up garbage there.
The spirit of gratitude we all gained from these experiences was palpable. For my daughter’s part, she began culling toys and clothes to donate to the kids who lost their homes in the Santa Rosa fires, and even approached me one day, out of the blue, with a $50 bill from her piggy bank that she’d decided she wanted to donate to California fire victims.
For my part, the disasters didn’t stop. The world seems to keep getting scarier. It’s still easy to feel helpless and hopeless. But I found that doing something, giving something, felt like a step in the right direction. It made me feel like I had some control, and that all might not be lost. In a world where there is plenty of bad, there is also plenty of good.
Mr. Rogers said that when he was a kid and would see something scary, his mother would remind him to look for the helpers. It’s good advice for grownups in an increasingly difficult world, too. It’s easy to forget, but there are thousands of people, right here in our own community, who are doing far more to help the community than my family’s meager efforts could even approach. I got a glimpse of the hard work going on out there, and it was enormously comforting. It made me feel great to live in this community, and the experience enabled me to count my blessings unreservedly.
I confess that our monthly commitment eventually fell away. We got caught up in the minutia of daily life and stopped scheduling time to volunteer, but it’s something I would like to restart and make a habit. Take it from someone who knows: You will get more out of the experience of community service than you give.