2015 was an interesting year for me. I went through a lot of personal struggles. However, those aren’t on the forefront of my mind as I reflect on this year. Instead, service is.
I fell in love with being in service to others this year. I realized how much serving was missing from my life all along. You might think the reason that I realized my place as a volunteer is because of a beautiful feeling of fulfillment that I felt every time I “gave back”. That’s not true at all. Service sometimes (quite often actually) really really sucks.
When I think of 2015, two faces come to mind. They are the faces of two kids I worked closely with this year. I volunteered at after school program bible study for at-risk kids on Mondays and Tuesdays where I met these kids and eventually I began working with just the two of them on Wednesday and sometimes Thursday so I could disciple to them one on one. They are brother and sister. Let’s call them Jack and Nicole.
I originally started working with Jack because I recognized that he needed individualized attention. He seemed to have a sweet spirit at times but he was often violent, said disturbing things, had a warped sense of how peers treated him, and was academically far behind. His sister was eventually added to the mix when it was clear his behavior affected her and that she was having issues of her own.
I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the issues I traversed with these 7 and 8 year olds this year. That’s not the point of this post. The point is that it was hard. Working with all the kids at after-school program got really hard sometimes. There were days I didn’t want to go or I thought about quitting. At our volunteers banquet, they asked everyone who thought about quitting to raise their hand. Almost every hand shot up.
There were days I went back to my apartment and sobbed on the floor because of something that happened to one of my kids. There were times I couldn’t believe my ears at the adult language coming from the kids, their innocence stolen. Things you just don’t want to believe happen, I learned do in fact happen.
I once held a boy as he cried because he’d forgotten to eat the free lunch and he wouldn’t eat again until the free breakfast in the morning. Another time I asked why one little boy was crying and found out his uncle and cousin had been kicked out of his house for drug use and were now homeless. I found stolen food wrapped in a little boys sweater. I found stolen computer paper to which a kid told me their mother asked them to steal it (what do you even say to that?) I sat in a classroom and listened to a teacher inform me of the abuse one of my kids had been subject to when he was a baby (starvation and physical beating). Some kids wore clothes that I swear had never been washed. I was constantly made aware of the burdens of the home lives of my kids.
The reception to me coming in and trying to serve was not roses and sunshine, far from it. Often kids didn’t want me there. They yelled terrible things at me, they threw things at me. Sometimes if I stepped into the middle of a fight, I got hit. They ignored me, they ripped up crafts I had spent a lot of time and money creating. We had a volunteer get so irate at the treatment from the kids that she quit in anger. When I got some other volunteer helpers from the Christian men’s group, they commented that they had no idea how I did it. Disrespect, anger, and rudeness were rampant.
But the treatment from the kids or the terrible things that I now know happen in real life weren’t what sucked about service. What sucked is that I don’t know if I made a difference. Scratch that. I made a difference in some ways. I don’t know if I made the difference I wanted to make.
You see, of all the kids I touched while serving this year, I became most emotionally invested in the two I mentioned before. Jack and Nicole are great kids or they could be. I have so much hope for their future and I tried.. I really really tried to help them, to steer them towards a future that they deserve and I know they are capable of. I taught them the Lords Prayer, I talked to them about their walk with God, I taught them about exercise, I helped them with homework. We walked a mile once a week for a different charity (using the Charity Miles app) and I tried to use that to teach them about helping others. I taught Jack to play the piano and Nicole to read from the bible. I loved them and I prayed for them and with them.
I brought them to my graduation with me. It would be the last time I would get to see them for a while as I can’t work with them next semester since I moved after graduation. I hung out with them the day before and I reflected on if I changed their lives. I would like to say that my hours and hours with them this year paid off, that service to others sometimes takes time but it’s all worth it in the end. The truth is that Jack is still having violent outbursts and they are in some ways worse than they were. Things are still rough for both of them. They still need me to guide them to get through the Lord’s Prayer. They still couldn’t answer questions about basic bible stories I had read to them multiple times. I can see a path for them where they walk with God but I don’t know if they’ll take it. In fact, I think it’s likely one or both of them might not (though I don’t want to say that because.. Optimism). I didn’t achieve the major victory with them that I wished I’d been able to. I sometimes got frustrated and wasn’t always thrilled to go work with them. When I gave them Christmas presents, they asked for more or better gifts and I didn’t use that as a learning opportunity.
At the end of my graduation, I had to say goodbye to them. My sister was bringing them back to their school so I could host my parents and godparents. I cried like a baby. Not because of how much I’ll miss them (well ok partially that).. But really it was because of how much I couldn’t do.
I used to think if we could just get everyone to experience the fulfillment of volunteering just once then we could fill the world with volunteers. It’s not true. I learned that this year. Service hurts and it’s hard and it tests you and it’s a struggle. It doesn’t feel good.
Other moments of service have been awful also. On thanksgiving, I was sad not fulfilled to see the way the homeless spent their holiday. My mom and I have been volunteering for a dog transport which moves dogs out of kill shelters and to parts of the country where their breed is wanted. It’s cute and fun sometimes but then I have to know about things that had happened to some of these dogs. One was thrown out of a moving car. Another had burns all over him (I told them not to tell me how he got them). After the recent tornadoes in Rowlett, TX, I was depressed and anxious to see the devastation when my Dad and I went to help with clean up. And I wasn’t happy with God either. Come on, a tornado?? At Christmas? Why couldn’t God have spared these people? Of the the 8 who died, one was just an infant. So many service moments remind me that service is not pretty.
I can’t articulate exactly what it is about service that I fell in love with in 2015. I’m sure this post has done a terrible job of convincing anyone to serve others in 2016. I have probably done just the opposite and deterred anyone from choosing to serve. But I’m in it for good now. I think everyone should be. I think we should work at our jobs less and volunteer to work for free more. Service to others should be a constant ongoing everyday thing, not something I do when I have spare time or that I fit in around my more pressing matters.
Maybe it’s that God asks us to. It doesn’t always feel good to answer the call but I sure am glad that I did. Despite all other struggles and trials, I will always remember 2015 fondly because it’s the year that I found out service sucks and that I’m going to do it anyways.