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Homelessness Myth #10: Serving Is Tiring

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I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.

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- Albert Schweitzer


I am fortunate to know some very busy people who, through their service, help make this world a better place to live. Even though they seldom take time off for rest and relaxation, they continue to work tirelessly for the benefit of all of us. They are happy, even joyful people who get up every day to serve again. How do these busy service providers defy the law of nature that says energy expended must be replenished?

How do some people see the unvarnished misery of their fellow human beings and not be physically and emotionally drained? How do some people continue to create beauty through art and music when the world can seem so dark? Why do they continue to serve humanity in a myriad of ways often with little support or encouragement?

Intrigued by these questions, I asked some amazingly selfless people what energizes them. I am very grateful to them for their comments that follow.

"We are all born with an instinct for altruism and giving as surely as we are born with instincts for survival, sex and power. But like muscles that need to be exercised, our generosity and compassion can only be developed through regular workouts. And, like working out, volunteering and service leave you with an inner buzz."

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- Arianna Huffington, Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief, Huffington Post

"Every day I run into a formerly homeless person who has graduated of St. Vinnie's - in airports, everywhere I go. Recently, I was in the hospital and the nurse and other hospital staff were all graduates of St. Vinnie's! We have two graduates on our board of directors. I'm constantly running into graduates from St. Vinnie's... that's what keeps me going! That's where the energy comes from."

-- Father Joe Carroll, President, St. Vincent de Paul Village

"It was a 'challenging' question. My 'one word' answer would have to be EMPOWERED... which may seem strange. After all, how could giving something to others be empowering?! But for most of my adult life, when thinking of the poor, I would just get very frustrated.

Sure, dropping a dollar or some coins in the buckets of bell-ringers for the Salvation Army, or to the man with his sign on the street corner is the 'decent' thing to do -- but it just never seemed 'enough.' And answering the call of organizations to donate cans of food or piles of clothing -- I understand it makes a difference -- but for how long? Do my efforts really change someone's life for the better... can one person really help?

It wasn't until I actually walked into a soup kitchen to drop off the food that I saw 'close up' what one person can do. Each one of those volunteers -- giving 'straight from the heart' -- was doing more than serving food. They were affirming that those receiving were 'worthy'... despite poverty, unemployment, substance abuse problems -- whatever their reasons for needing help... someone cared about THEM. Cared enough to give, not just money or food or stuff -- but themselves, their time, their effort, their concern.

For those who have nothing... living in fear and pain... that affirmation that their lives still have value to someone means the difference between giving up or getting up. One needs only to visit the soup kitchens, the day centers or the shelters to feel that power. Each one of us can make a very big difference."

-- Rose von Perbandt/agent for artist Ed Miracle/Art at Work

"Despite not having had a vacation in years, a phone call, an email of success, meeting a graduate of our program for homeless people keeps me going. I get that a lot. Our graduates become successful and they call me five, 10 years down the road. When graduates come from graduation, I feel like $9 million bucks!"

-- Bob McElroy, President, The Alpha Project

"Service refreshes my spirit, giving me a new perspective on life -- my own as well as that of others. It renews my commitment to live well and wholly within the larger Spirit that encircles us all with love."

-- Karen A. Shaffer, President, The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education

"A person who really hasn't experienced life yet, if they haven't experienced helping someone in need."

-- William Butler, M.A., M.Div

"Many times after anxiety-inducing budget or policy meetings, I find that spending time with the clients in the program can have a calming effect. Just listing to others and helping them through their day benefits the client and the caregiver. It does not matter if the client is irritated about an issue or dealing with a particularly difficult time in their life, in social services if all interactions with others are looked at through the lens of empathy no ill will or aggravation can be transferred.

-- Paul

"What motivates me to help people? I feel blessed that I have so much, so it is appropriate for me to share what I have.

"Service to others satisfies a desire in me to give back because I can't say that all that I have or where I am in life is because of myself alone. Someone helped each of us to get to where we are. I am doing a payback to give to others what has been given to me. None of us is here on our own.

As a Big Brother, I felt very fortunate that I could help children who had no father."

-- Former Big Brother in the Big Brothers of America Program

"It concerns me that there are so many needs out there. So many people are struggling. They can't even buy food or find a decent place to live.

I don't work directly with clients, but I work so that life is a bit easier for them. My hope is that what I am doing from day to day will help someone, somewhere live life with less stress and ease of mind.

This is what keeps me going; it keeps all of us going."

-- Hannah Cohen, Policy Consultant on Issues of Housing and Homelessness, President of the Cohen Group

"As a photojournalist, I have had the opportunity to talk to many of San Diego's homeless. Each time we engage in a conversation, a cup of coffee, or just sit and watch passers by, I feel a communion with the person we call "homeless." It's a very special time for me.

"It moves me deeply to smile along with someone else who has little yet offers a smile in return. I will continue to be an advocate for realistic and essential change in the criminal justice system and in finding answers to eradicate homelessness."

-- Susan Madden Lankford, author, Downtown USA

"Remaining silent or passive in the face of injustice is simply not an option for me, since that would be tantamount to being complicit in that injustice. So I am fortunate that being part of struggles for social justice -- work that is utterly necessary if the world is to become a better place -- nourishes me both physically and emotionally. The struggle, itself, infuses me with energy."

-- Susie Curtiss

I look forward to your comments. Thank you.

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