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The Problem With Volunteering

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By Laura Toscano, Director of The Campus Kitchens Project

Chances are, at some point in your life, you've volunteered your time at a local charity. It may have been a little disorganized, but you got your hands dirty, helped out for a few hours, and left with a certain feeling of accomplishment, figuring you'd done your good deed for the day. It's a common experience and an important one. But it's time to set the record straight about something you've been told -- or told yourself -- when it comes to community service.

The prevailing message in service has been, "every little bit counts." Or according to Mother Teresa, "If you can't feed a hundred, feed just one." Young people around the country are required to spend a set number of hours doing community service so they can earn their diploma or degree. It doesn't matter if they actually had an impact, or reinforced their classroom learning with practical experience. What matters, they're told, is that they tried to do "a little bit of good" -- and what else can anyone do, really? The unspoken implication is that volunteering will never end, because the underlying problems will never be solved, and everyone has to do their part, on and on, forever.

This kind of volunteering is meant to be heartwarming, but, if you think about, it's actually heartbreaking. What if, instead of counting students' service hours, we asked them to step up and solve problems?

Most people see students as learners. At The Campus Kitchens Project, we view them as our teachers: on campuses across the country we decided to give them the responsibility to create innovative and lasting solutions to hunger.

Our student volunteers readily identify new approaches that those of us entrenched in traditional nonprofit practices and mindsets are completely blind to. Instead of raising thousands of dollars and buying food to feed the hungry, or launching capital campaigns to build bigger food bank warehouses lined floor to ceiling with cans, these students retrofitted dynamic new solutions from resources that already existed in their communities. In the midst of so many people who didn't know where their next meal would come from, students saw food going to waste on campus and dining halls with state of the art commercial kitchens sitting dark in the evenings.

Today, empowering students to leverage these underutilized resources still makes up the foundation of our work. But our student leaders are still running the show, and every day they are still teaching us new and groundbreaking ways to end hunger.

One outstanding case of this sort of student leadership showed up in Spokane, Washington, when students at Gonzaga University began recovering food and bringing it to a monthly community dinner for homeless residents of their city. But they didn't stop there.

When funding cuts threatened to eliminate this critical community meal service, the Campus Kitchen at Gonzaga University stepped up and saved the program -- and then made it smarter and stronger than ever. The Gonzaga students soon realized how many homeless veterans were among those relying on their monthly dinner. They challenged themselves to increase the regularity of meal service to once a week, and began to invite in partners to help these clients find housing and employment, to break the cycle of poverty and hunger that had landed them there in the first place. Now they have expanded their operations to include a second community dinner for veterans. For these volunteers, it wasn't the hours that mattered. It was what they did with them.

Laura Toscano is the Director of The Campus Kitchens Project. To learn more about the work of students at Campus Kitchens across the country and support their work, visit www.campuskitchens.org.