Eiki Hayasaki in Tokyo

Eiki HayasakiI have been volunteering for the Meguro After School program in Tokyo, Japan that takes care of disabled children when their parents need someone to take care of them while they are busy at work. When I decided to commit my 30 hours of community service to this organization, I was optimistic, telling myself that this is my chance to finally learn how to take care of children and meet new people in Japan. Before I knew it, I was in front of the building where I would be volunteering for 30 hours, which seemed unbelievable at the time.

When I first stepped into the building and saw children with various disabilities, I sighed quietly thinking this was going to be the roughest 30 hours of my life. I’m bad enough when it comes to taking care of normal children, so I only had pessimistic thoughts of what my experience would be like with disabled children. After completing all the required hours at this organization, contrary to my original belief, I realized that these were in fact the best 30 hours of my life.

While I was focusing on all the negative aspects of volunteering here, one of the kids came up to me and offered me a cup of tea. I was extremely surprised because this boy seemed to be able to walk and talk normally. He came to introduce himself to me before anyone else and it was very evident to me that this boy was working hard to be seen as a normal person.

The best part of my experience here was being able to take care of the children that I soon came to love. There were about ten children that came every day and I was able to learn most of their names on the first day. For the first two days I went to volunteer there, I was given easy responsibilities such as feeding the kids lunch and snacks, washing the bowls and cups they used, or putting away all the toys.

Something the children especially liked about me was how I could speak English. Some of the kids loved simple English songs such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Jingle Bells, or Yankee Doodle. I had the pleasure to sing those songs for them and they stared at me intensely while I sang. By the end of the day, all of them had taken a liking to me. They’ve never met someone that could speak English. They were really surprised and intrigued that I could speak English even though I was Japanese like everyone else around them.

On the third day, my supervisors were nice enough to give me the privilege to take the children out to a nearby park where I would play with and supervise them. It was an honor for me to have the kids entrusted to me, but it was also challenging. Some of these kids burst with energy as soon as we got to the park. They started running towards strangers and so I had to run to stop them and ensure they didn’t bother other people. Some of them wanted to lick the swings and the poles around them, so I had to hold them back and teach them that these things are dirty and that they don’t want their mouths anywhere near it. Some of them got so excited to be outside that they got on my back and started shrieking from excitement, which was extremely adorable but also threatening to my ears. There were many more challenging moments. Despite all of these challenges, I was grateful to be able to spend time with these children outside of the building because they were much more lively outside and I loved seeing them so enthusiastic.

Spending time with these children made me realize how fortunate and privileged I am to be able to go out whenever I want and to be given athletic talent that the children could only dream of having. These children motivated me to work harder on academics and athletics because even if they do want to study hard for something or start playing sports, it’s highly unlikely to happen because they just weren’t as fortunate as me when they were born.

The 30 hours of community service at this organization flew by in the blink of an eye. I thought to myself “Why do I never work to accomplish something to the best of my abilities and take everything for granted when these magnificent kids aren’t given the capability to work towards something as hard as me?” I felt tremendously selfish for not using this blessing that was given to me to the best of my capability when some people around the world aren’t even given this. Until I met these children, I didn’t realize how truly lucky I am for being born into the person I am today. I didn’t realize that activities that seem normal to me were impracticalities for some people around the world. I didn’t realize how fortunate I am to be able to go to school and learn for the sake of learning and to be able to complain about difficulties in certain subjects or how the workload in some classes is excessive. I am sincerely grateful that I found this organization online, that my supervisors decided to allow me to volunteer to assist them, and that I met these wonderful children who gave me more motivation than I have ever felt before and a new perspective on life. 

Camp Kee Tov – Mimi Ostroy Harp

Sydney WeissWhen I first heard that Camp Kee Tov, the camp I have been going to my whole life would be continuing in-person camp this summer, I didn’t feel optimistic or excited at all. I wanted to opt-out and spend the summer doing as many fun activities with my friends as the current state of our world would allow. I thought that would be a much better way to spend my summer, as opposed to working every day in circumstances I didn’t even think were possible. Many of my fellow staff members dropped out because it was either too big of a safety risk or they didn’t want to commit themselves to the safety protocols we had to follow. I was prepared to drop out, but I knew I would never feel right about that considering how much Kee Tov has given me the past eleven years.

About a week before camp started, I found out that my counselor co-worker, who I would be working with for most of the summer, just the two of us, was someone I was not particularly fond of. He was known to not be fully engaged with the campers. He is also a year older than me meaning this was his third summer as a counselor and only my second. Immediately, I knew that I would have to step up. It was on me to make sure our ten campers were staying safe and having fun. Having no choice but to step into a leadership position I didn’t think I was ready for made me do even better than if I was intended to be in that position. I became the role model for my counselor co-worker and for other staff members in my group. The extra effort and energy I had to put in made me a better counselor then I had ever imagined I would be in my second summer on staff. I was worn out and worked harder than I ever have before, but I also felt really good about the work. It brought me so much joy to know that my campers were having fun and their families were extremely grateful just to have somewhere fun for their kids to go. 

One of my favorite campers was not the most easy-going kid. He had trouble being in a group and didn’t like doing any activity unless he thought of it. He would constantly leave the group and sit alone, refusing to talk to anyone or move. I ended up spending a lot of time sitting off to the side with him, attempting to convince him to join us in a game or an art project. He would cry and ask for his mom almost every time. I would sit and talk to him. Despite the fact that he was only five, we had some meaningful conversations about how he felt. These conversations helped me better understand how to keep him engaged and participating. Every morning I would greet him at his car. His mom would tell me how much fun he was having and how happy she was that he got to be part of such an enjoyable experience. Her telling me this made me so happy that I made the choice to stick with camp and work through the summer of 2020. By the end of the summer, his parents asked me to work with him every day in his distance learning because he and I connected so well. It felt so good to know that I was the reason that he had a great summer. 

From working at camp this summer, I learned that I can really do anything if I put my mind to it–and I might actually enjoy it and get a lot out of it as well! Although this past summer was challenging and a huge commitment, it was one of the most meaningful summers of my life. If I hadn’t agreed to work, I know I would have spent the summer sitting at home feeling unproductive and sad about not getting everything I could have out of the summer. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to even have camp, since so many other summer camps were shut down due to COVID. I learned to not take what I have for granted and that just because something seems hard and not the most fun at all times, it can still end up being very rewarding.  

Open Heart Kitchen – Sydney Weiss

Sydney WeissThe most rewarding part of working at Open Heart Kitchen for me, as well as the most challenging, was the defiant individuality of the seniors. I worked the first shifts under the impression that the residents who filled the dining hall were for my intents and purposes nearly homogenous. Old age had given them all the same grey hair and wrinkles. Their shared condition led them to repeat the same polite expressions of gratitude—quiet ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’—as a kind acknowledgement of my presence before returning to their various conversations.

It wasn’t until a few days in that this neat image began to fracture. The first crack happened as I did my rounds serving dessert, taking meal tickets, and exchanging them for bowls of fruit or pudding. I offered to take a meal ticket from a sweet looking lady in a flower print dress. She smiled at me and said that I needn’t take her meal ticket, that another volunteer had already taken it from her and I could just bring her the pudding. Taking her explanation at face value, I did as I was told. One she finished that first bowl, she handed me a ticket and I brought her another one. It was only later, as demand was slowing down and I chatted with the supervisor, that I realized that I had been duped. 

For the rest of my service, newly privy to the various schemes the guests were almost constantly attempting, the job got quite a bit harder. As they got to know me, they didn’t hesitate to contribute to that difficulty in other ways. Pretty soon polite ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’ were replaced with ‘you’re carrying too many plates at once’ and ‘move faster, my food is getting cold.’  Needless to say, my impression of the seniors changed drastically, and not necessarily for the worse.

This change also showed itself off in more overtly positive ways. During one of my shifts, I noticed a guest who I had seen many times before and remembered easily due to his using a motorized wheelchair and wearing an eyepatch. He was holding up pages from a mid-century era fitness magazine showing muscled male models posing in underwear. I brought him his soup and he motioned for me to stay. “Look,” he said, gesturing frailly at the worn pages, “that’s me!” I never saw him the same way again, and it made me wonder about the other guests. What storied pasts could they too hold? 

I made it my mission during the rest of my service to learn about the people I served. I had the opportunity to talk with a woman who was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working at IBM during the dawn of the technology. I met a nice man with a prison tattoo signifying that he killed someone and his very, very sweet dog. This all proved to be by far the most rewarding part of my service, and one that will likely bring me back to the soup kitchen even now that my school-required hours are done.

White Pony Express – Radman Zarbock

Radman ZarbockIn my view, many community service programs, including Athenian’s, use service requirements to educate individuals about the values of civic duty, selflessness, and our responsibility not just to our community but to each other by virtue of our shared humanity; our participation in the human experience. While I have certainly become wiser with respect to all three values, the primary outcome of my service project was something else – the experience bestowed upon me a better understanding of human purpose in the context of our ephemeralness in a constantly changing universe, pushed forward relentlessly by the torrents of time.

Prior to conducting my service project with the White Pony Express (WPE), I believed that personal achievement was the most important objective in life. In our society, we are often taught that nothing short of perfection is acceptable, and that anything less than that is failure. Even the way we look at food at the grocery store is reflective of this judgement. There are many who would not even consider buying, for example, corn whose rows are not perfectly straight or tomatoes with too many disfigurations, even though there may be nothing amiss with the product. In light of this, Imperfect Foods, with whom I have collaborated through WPE, was founded to rescue food that is senselessly neglected. Before my project, I believed that we as humans should work towards perfection, and to a good extent still do. However, I used to think this was the ultimate goal of life, and I was shown otherwise.

When I heard about the opportunity to conduct a 200 hour service project as a sophomore, I decided it would be in my best interests to take on such a project as it would bring me closer to the ideal of a perfect model citizen. Since service was valued highly in my community, I believed that excellence was correlated to service, and that consequently this achievement would make me a better community member. I also reasoned it would be a great use of my time, especially since as a teenager, I knew there were not very many conventional ways for me to be a useful member of society.

My first year of volunteering at WPE taught me leadership above all else. It also showed me both the power and value of civic duty, and why it is important to be taught selflessness – so you can logically identify and act on societal needs greater than your own wants instead of succumbing to the common compulsion towards Netflix and popcorn. When multiple people come together in responding to their sense of civic duty, it is nothing short of incredible what can be done. I got several opportunities to lead others in my first year at WPE; I gained experience in leading by example, by directive, and through peer leadership, all of which were immensely gratifying. I felt as if I was giving back to WPE by assisting the flow of the operation and helping new volunteers, as I had been given guidance when I was new.

As a whole, the first year consisted of connecting to my sense of civic duty, striving to be as useful as I could through both my work and leadership, and finding fulfillment in contributing to society. Yet I still believed what was important was to work towards becoming the ideal citizen or community member, to attain this personal achievement of perfecting one’s self with regards to one’s societally given duties. It was not until the second year of my project that I realized that personal achievement, even pertaining to one’s excellence in their fulfillment of the tasks their community deems valuable, is not what ultimately gives us purpose.

In my second year of volunteering for WPE, I took a position as a deliveryman on food distribution runs, a role I had never done before. I would usually arrive at the distribution center early in the morning and go out on a truck to rescue surplus food from local grocery stores. This time, I went out on an afternoon delivery to supply food to pantries and soup kitchens so they could distribute it directly to those in need.

One day, after unloading at one of our stops, I encountered a homeless man sitting on a bench near the pantry. I offered to grab him anything he wanted from the truck, and upon his agreement, I jaunted to the back of the truck, where my eyes fell upon a crate of fruit cartons I had quality-controlled and packed that morning. As I handed a pack of strawberries to the man, who gratefully accepted it with a smile, something clicked in my mind. I came to the crucial realization that personal achievement is not purpose itself, but a contributing factor to a much larger cause. 

The strawberries I handed the man were not the finest but, as opposed to their shiny comrades sitting idly on grocery store shelves, they had a purpose. For the strawberry that goes unused, regardless of how marvelous, will have had a purposeless existence. Hence, I saw that what matters is not purely one’s personal achievement but what you do with the knowledge, skill, and opportunity you have. Many of us desire to do something that lasts longer than ourselves, to leave some imprint in history so that our existence will not have been negligible. Yet one’s achievements, regardless of their magnitude, will eventually all be lost in the sands of time. But the impacts we have on each other’s lives, from the genuine smiles we evoke in friends and strangers to the technological breakthroughs we make that improve the lives of thousands, are permanently imprinted in the being of other observers of reality. In this, we may know that we were not negligible, that we mattered, that we made a positive difference that cannot be erased.

Our personal achievements matter only insofar as we use our gifts to positively impact the lives of others. With great ability comes great responsibility. And I am determined to use mine to its fullest potential.

Valle Verde Elementary School – Anna Ravid

I completed my community service project by volunteering at my local elementary school, Valle Verde, over March Term. As a child, I attended Valle Verde Elementary School. Like most children, my time in elementary school has impacted my life in countless ways. To this day I still keep in touch with my two best friends from elementary school. I have many childhood memories of PE, lunch, recess, playing tag with friends, being teased, going to fifth grade camp, and all of my teachers–both good and bad. 

I hoped that coming back as a junior in high school that I would be able to give extra support to a teacher and give the students an opportunity to get one-on-one help. Budgets for public schools are tight in my district, and schools rely heavily on volunteers to provide reading help and make art and drama programs possible. Class sizes at Valle Verde, like a lot of other schools, have been getting larger in past years, making it hard for teachers to provide one-on-one help to students. I worked in Mrs. Positigo’s transitional kindergarten class – for students who were 5 years old and slightly too young for kindergarten. The class was divided into early birds and late birds, with around 14-15 students in each group.

On my first day, walking back through the school was very strange. Everything seemed much smaller than I remembered. I met up with Mrs. Postigo and she gave me a tour of the classroom. I learned all the children’s names fairly quickly. They all called me “Miss Anna,” which sounded very strange to my ears. The kids were very grateful to have somebody to help them put on their jackets, open their lunch boxes, complain about school yard teasing, read books, and talk to. When I would arrive each day, some of them would run up and hug me or want to hold hands. It was very touching. 

One of my favorite experiences was reading with the students. They had very mixed reading abilities. A few of the kids could read all of the books in the classroom with little difficulty, while others had trouble recognizing their letters. All of the children, regardless of ability, were very excited to read books. They would come up to me at all points in the day holding books, desperate for me to read to them.  This experience made me realize just how important it is for kids to have individualized reading help. I always tried to make myself accessible so that they could ask questions about what a word or letter was. I tried to encourage some of the more fluent readers to read out loud with their friends, so that the other kids could benefit from hearing the story and seeing the words on the page. It made me sad to think that in a few years many of them would lose their enthusiasm for reading.

One of the kids I got to know the best was a girl named Kate. She spent all day at school, going to the onsite daycare before and after school. She was very bright and told me proudly that she could read in both Russian and English. Throughout the day I saw her get discouraged by the lack of challenge, and complain to me that it was ‘too easy.’ I tried to find fun ways to make the activities more challenging. Instead of writing out letters on the white board, I would suggest she write sentences about her life or read a more challenging book. It was difficult to balance helping kids like Kate with giving extra attention to the students who were struggling. 

The most challenging part of my work was trying to keep a large group of little kids behaved. I learnt a lot from Mrs. Postigo, who was firm and consistent while giving directions and reprimanding students. It was hard not to laugh when they misbehaved in adorable ways. Eventually, I learned to control myself and get them to stick to the rules of the classroom.

I’m so grateful to have had the chance to meet all of these children and help them. I volunteered the week before California schools were shut down due to Coronavirus. I find myself wondering about how all the little kids are coping with this new reality of life at home. As a junior in high school, I underestimated how much ‘online schooling’ would affect the quality of education. Looking back at my experience volunteering has made me realize just how important interpersonal connection is in school, especially for elementary school students. The majority of the learning I observed came from their interactions with their friends, classmates, and teacher. I hope that they aren’t lonely at home. Some of them told me they were only children. They were all really sociable and I hope they still have a chance to play, chat, and run around. Overall, I’m very grateful to have had this experience. 

What is Community Service

Community Service is an essential part of life. The beauty of community service lies in the way that it allows for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and advocate for causes that they are passionate about. Not only does it help those in need, it is also a way in which students can grow and develop their own selves. At The Athenian Upper School students are able to gain these experiences through weekend service trips, ongoing community service groups, and intensive individual projects. This specific website is intended for the students of Athenian to explore newer and more impactful areas of service. Explore our website to find the area that service that speaks to you!