In 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.