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Volunteer for A Day

Posted on 12 September 2008

My friend, Doug, calls to say he’s back from Costa Rica for a month and then off to revitalize the Ukraine for 27 months with the Peace Corps. My friend Tara will be spending spring break in war-torn Bosnia because, “They could really use some help putting things back together.” Diana implores me to volunteer for Boston City Year’s Annual Servathon. I buckle under my generation’s crusader image and say yes, knowing that I’ll regret it later.

I do. Crack babies, AIDS, homelessness, racism, deforestation, national debt, illiteracy, nuclear contamination, ethnic cleansing, teen pregnancies, ozone depletion, acid rain, poverty, mass starvation. In the midst of all this, I apply one coat of paint to one shutter and one railing at the Huntington Avenue YMCA. Out of hundreds of YMCAs that need restoration. Out of thousands of organizations that are trying to help millions and millions of people who need help – and it wasn’t even a smooth coat of paint.

Don’t worry. I’m over it. I’m already engrossed in navigating through the crowd of volunteers to one of the complimentary post-Servathon sandwiches. It’s just easier not to obsess, not to internalize the monumental human needs facing the world today. Gutless, but easier.

I used to think politics was the only elixir big enough to solve the world’s problems. Having grown up in historic Lexington, Massachusetts (shot heard ’round the world, etc.), I can’t help but appreciate the power of the people and the sacrifices made to uphold that empowerment. Politics could mobilize the leaders and resources of an entire country and even the world.

But today, the political process just seems like one big melodramatic mire. I just can’t get through all the hoopla to the mini-success stories that must exist out there.

And without faith in political mobilization, the bonus falls back on the individual, which has driven the individual young people comprising my generation to the highest rate of volunteerism in history – but which still brings this individual right back to being overwhelmed with the responsibility of fixing the world. It just seems beyond me in my lifetime. I could quit my job, sell my belongings, and devote the rest of my life to volunteering for one cause – and still not put a teeny dent in the dire need of that cause.

So I meekly retreat to contributions within my daily routine. Recycle. Shut off lights. Hold doors. Always say “please” and “thank you.” Never cut someone in line – unless they’re about to grab the last complimentary post-Servathon sandwich.

I weave forward through the teeming masses of hungry but patient volunteers when it hits me. Teeming. Masses. I’m suddenly emphatically aware of the vast number of fellow volunteers, legions, most of whom are in front of me in line.

“How many people did the Servathon serve today?” I ask one of the official City Year volunteers who’s vying for line position, a beaming woman in her official uniform of bright red jacket with City Year insignia, faded khakis and rugged work boots.

“The final count was about 12,000,” she says, and then shimmies ahead of me in line.

Wow. Epiphany #1: There’s no way I’m going to get one of those savory sandwiches. Epiphany #2: 12,000 is a lot of people. Even if everyone is as inept a painter as I am, that’s at least 12,000 painted shutters and railings. And City Year has taken root nationwide. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of new coats of paint, possibly being seen and appreciated and enjoyed by millions of people. People who, at the very least, will get a good laugh at all the clumps in the paint.

For more information about City Year’s Annual Servathon, call the Servathon hotline at 617.927.2500 or log on to their Web site.

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