When you hear the term “community service”, what comes to mind? Soup kitchen? Picking up garbage? Homeless people? Graduation requirement? An alternative to prison? If any of these terms popped into your head, it is time for you to change that. Any form of volunteering can be a life-changing experience, no matter how big or small your contribution is.
I did not know what to expect when I applied to an Elks Scholar service trip to San Antonio last summer. I intended to go sight-seeing and play a couple of ice breakers with other students in between sessions of serving food to homeless people. We did do these things, but the experience provided me with three benefits that I never thought would affect me everyday: knowledge, travel, and relationships.
Practicing new skills
During the trip, twenty-two of us visited different organizations in San Antonio with varying levels of resources and success. Some shelters were very organized and had multiple facilities, while others were small and clearly needed more manpower and funding. The varying needs resulted in a variety of tasks for my group. We mostly provided indirect services (helping the organization operate rather than directly interacting with its clients) which allowed us to build upon our personal skills and learn new ones. We practiced leadership when creating efficient working rhythms for tasks like sorting through donations and folding clothes. We also got exposed to physical tasks we usually never do, such as painting ceilings, gardening, and building playhouses.
Despite the differences among the shelters, they each caused me to dismantle the idea of homelessness as an identity. Homelessness does not have to be a permanent experience. Each shelter had an incredible turn around period of their clients. Clients receive medical attention, dental care, allowances to shop for food, season and style appropriate clothing, and help obtaining jobs and homes. This information changed the way I viewed shelters and less fortunate people: they are not as hopeless as I assumed them to be, and I wish I had known this sooner.
Exploring new places
Some service experiences allow you to travel or attend nearby events for free or at a discounted price. I got to spend time in downtown San Antonio for a small fee. Through opportunities in my own state, I attended the Amazon VOICE Summit for free. Volunteering isn’t just for shelters and soup kitchens. You can totally volunteer at check in tables or merchandise booths at marathons, concerts, festivals, and conventions that interest you. All you have to do is search online for these opportunities.
Creating new connections
Finally, my favorite benefit of volunteering is forming new relationships. I bonded very closely with twenty other students who all share the same compassion for humanity. The work we did in Texas was genuine, which made the trip so enjoyable and emotional that we all cried when we said our goodbyes. I communicate daily with the friends I made on this trip, and I cannot wait to meet them again in the future. I also got to network with people in my field of study. I connected with a student who interned at Google and Apple, and upon sending him an email after the trip, I received a new LinkedIn connection and helpful resume advice.
And because of this one experience, I decided to cancel my long anticipated trip to Costa Rica and instead apply for another service trip. The benefits of volunteering are certainly more valuable to me than any vacation, a feeling I would have not expected before my experience in San Antonio.