Learning to treat service as a way of life

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Service is more than a task.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans on a service trip, and I think this notion finally stuck for me. Service is so much more than a simple action or a voluntary expenditure of time. It’s deeper than that.

SLU was ranked fourth in the nation for community service by “Washington Monthly” back in October 2016. It’s a true honor to go to a school that cares so deeply about the surrounding community, but I cannot help to question whether we as a university view service as a task or as a lifestyle. The latter is not easy. It takes more free time from our days, more effort to make a connection and more labor from our already fatigued bodies. But, trust me on this one, the moment we realize that we made that connection with the person we are serving — that we are making a difference in even the smallest bit of the world —it’s all worth it.

In New Orleans I was fortunate enough to work with two homeowners who stand as beacons of positivity and compassion in a world severely lacking in them. For the first woman, Sheila, we simply painted her hallway and bedroom. It was a simple task, one that 10 people could have certainly handled with minimal effort, but I know that it changed Sheila’s life. While we were there, she asked us if we could dust her shelves. A very simple task, and one that I often neglect to do in my dorm room out of sheer laziness, but she asked us with tears in her eyes. All Sheila wanted was to be able to keep her home clean and presentable, but due to age and health conditions she wasn’t able to perform these seemingly simple tasks that we could with ease. The simple cleaning was what she thanked us most profusely for, and in return she did what she could do: cooked us a meal, made us frozen treats and shared kind words.

More than the labor I did, or the completion of the projects that were given to me, I will always remember how positive the atmosphere was in Sheila’s home. I will cherish watching “Steve Harvey” with her while she shared stories of her and her family growing up in New Orleans. I’d like to think that this positive energy came from treating service as more than a task. We were not there out of pity or obligation; we were there because we knew that we would get just as much out of the experience as Sheila did.

I was told multiple times throughout the trip that I was making a difference. This is something I’ve been told before, but for the first time I did not shrug it off like it was no big deal. I did not discredit the work I did or the connections I made because I actually did feel like I made a difference. I felt different — happier, and more complete. It does not take excessive amounts of energy to feel this way either, all it takes is a new perspective on the everyday actions we complete.

I came to SLU because, when I visited, it felt like a real community. My high school’s slogan is “students four year, brothers and sisters for life,” and it actually felt true. I spent more time at my high school than at home most days, and the people in that building became my family. I worked with them, played with them, served with them and I wanted to go to a college that gave me that same feeling. That feeling of home.

Luckily, I think SLU is that home I needed, but that does not mean it is perfect. Instead of hanging our “best in community service” plaque up to collect dust, we should be using it as a reminder of the life that we want to lead. On Make a Difference Day, Showers of Service or any other number of service projects we complete as a campus, we shouldn’t go into the day groaning about waking up early. We shouldn’t rush through the work to just get it done. We should take a step back and realize what we are actually doing. Service in itself involves the completion of a task, but more importantly it involves an emotional connection to the community around us and the realization that maybe, just maybe, the service changes us.