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A Year of Service

Posted on 13 September 2008

Unlike most people, I’ve had my life planned out since high school: go to college, volunteer for a year or two and then go to law school. Although I had volunteered in high school and in college, I wanted to devote a full year volunteering for the poor.

Right after graduation seemed like the perfect time for several reasons. First, I wanted to take a year off before law school, and volunteering seemed to fit perfectly into that plan. Second, I wished to see life through a different perspective before becoming tainted by the law, widely known as a cynical profession. I also knew that if I began to work, I would almost certainly not want to forgo a year of earnings to volunteer. Lastly, right after college was the perfect time, because I was idealistic, eager to see the world and accustomed to living off of little. I was also aware of the practical benefits of volunteer work – it helps in terms of setting yourself apart from other applicants when looking for a job or applying to graduate school.

So I knew I wanted to volunteer – but I had no idea of how to go about doing it. I spent days on the Internet, searching for the perfect program, which for me was simply one that paid for all of my living expenses, was a year in duration and provided housing.

By chance, I heard about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and then discovered the Lutheran Volunteer Corps through a college guidance counselor. Both are premised on the same principles – work for social justice, simplify lifestyles and live in a community with other volunteers. I was not too keen on the religious aspect, but the programs made volunteering easy, which after all the research I had done, was very much welcome. As a Catholic having just graduated from a Catholic college, I wanted a change, so the Lutheran Volunteer Corps seemed the right choice.

I applied to LVC and was accepted. Once accepted, LVC provided me with a list of possible placements for the year at varying nonprofit agencies. The placements ranged from hands-on work with battered women, to legislative advocacy for the homeless, to working at an AIDS hospice, to legal assistance, to environmental clean-up programs. I decided I only wanted to be in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., so my choices of the type of work were limited. I thought about legal assistance programs because I was planning on law school, but also thought that something completely unrelated to my future career would be gratifying as well.

Practicality overcame me, and I chose to work to for a legal assistance agency. I went to prisons for both men and women, and educated inmates about their legal rights in the area of family law. I was so scared the first time I entered a prison; I wasn’t sure if I’d be safe. But everything worked out fine, and the inmates were, for the most part, very respectful to me. In the office, I drew up legal documents and called courthouses about cases. I was surprised at how much responsibility I was actually given.

The work did, however, become draining after several months. The same problems always seemed to surface – the drug-addicted mother losing custody of her children and wanting them back, the abused woman wanting a divorce, the neglectful father who couldn’t afford child support while in prison.

There were times I just wanted to scream; there were too many problems and way too few resources available to help. But I learned a lot about people with whom I had never before interacted, and I realized a great deal about myself – my capabilities and my limitations.

In hindsight, the experience was wonderful. I viewed it as a unique way to give all of myself before entering the world of corporate law, where my future contributions to society would be limited to some pro bono work and donations. For others, however, the experience was just the beginning of a life committed to helping those less fortunate. Regardless of the motivation for volunteering, one thing remains constant: There are always those in need of assistance, and whatever services are provided and for however long, they are appreciated.

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