Make a difference day: Not the best way for SLU to serve

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Thousands packed Hermann Soccer Stadium on Saturday Oct. 22 for SLU’s Make a Difference Day, in which volunteers travel by bus to work at sites around the St. Louis area. Although SLU boasts over a million service hours from students, faculty and staff each year, MADD is overrated as a method by which to service the community.

The Editorial Board appreciates and admires SLU’s mission and feels it embodies an institution created for “service to the community.” We believe this to be a genuine concern of the University and a purpose for students to rally behind. However, MADD does not best exemplify SLU’s mission.

When SLU organizes mass service days, the University transports thousands of volunteers into the community for several hours to complete tasks, such as painting walls and benches, removing weeds from gardens and digging through mulch, dirt and rock. These tasks do help the community to an extent. Perhaps the sites do not have the funding to carry out such tasks, saving them money. However, for much of the St. Louis area and its inhabitants, these tasks do not substantially aid the community or its members.

Most of the needs of the St. Louis community will not be solved in one day. MADD does not claim to be the community’s solution, but because it only occurs once a year, it still affects how SLU interacts with the community and how its students get involved with service opportunities. Thousands of students contributing on one day does not meet the need of the community around us. SLU and its students contribute to the community in many other ways besides MADD, but these programs do not receive the same amount of attention and university sponsorship that MADD receives.

One of the better ways for SLU students to get involved and truly change the lives of others would be to build lasting relationships with community members. When students leave the SLU bubble only occasionally, they do not act as members of the community. MADD, in the regard that it replaces other forms of service, hurts the University’s mission. The kind of work students do on MADD can all be completed within several hours. The work the St. Louis community needs cannot be so easily finished. When one makes a new friend, they work to maintain that relationship — it should be the same with the community around SLU.

The difference between service and volunteer work is the development and maintenance of a long-lasting relationship. Volunteer work, which best describes MADD, involves projects and small tasks into which people can put effort and see tangible returns on their investment. A genuine relationship with a friend would not stand on a foundation of returns from an investment, and neither should a relationship with the community.

MADD’s volunteer work involves tasks where you move things with your body and see those changes in the world. The service that matters is not simple or easy. Service does not always feel good at the end of the day.

MADD is meant to feel good. MADD contributes to a sort of voluntourism — a phenomenon in which volunteers travel somewhere with the ostensible intention of helping the community but also the desire for adventure and discovery. Under certain circumstances, volunteers live in states of luxury compared to the people they intend to serve. Their desire for adventure and discovery can drain an already impoverished area of its resources.

Although MADD does not involve the capacity to hurt others like voluntourism does, it still does not contribute in as meaningful a way as SLU advertises it. For all the service hours provided in one day, the community might benefit more from a more steady flow of students into areas in need of help.

In the end, MADD acts more as a ceremony for SLU — a celebration of its Jesuit Mission. Honoring SLU’s virtues is not bad fundamentally, but when it is essentially promoted as the University’s proudest service achievement of the year, it overshadows other service achievements.

SLU has the capacity to become even more involved in helping its neighbors and should emphasize projects that develop and maintain relationships. Service for humanity is not once a year — it’s every day.