When I contemplate how my life has pivoted from what was just a comfortable apathy to now a determined activism, it's hard to pinpoint the singular moments of change. I think for many who are engaged in the culture of service, there is probably some part of them that has always felt curious about the world beyond their own sphere. I can say that for me, that's how I always was; only I lacked the exposure and knowledge of how to actually go and do something. And I got distracted along the way with social life, school and work.
But most people know this, right? Perhaps we all inherently know that serving our communities immeasurably enriches our own lives, and that a philosophy of service is what achieves peaceful neighborhoods as well as global societies. So what makes some take the leap to fully live a service-filled life while others let it slip into fuzzy idealism?
Looking back at my life there have been a few seminal moments that I can say were definite turning points toward consciously living a life of service and volunteering. Three moments in particular stand out in my memory that caused me to hear the clarion call of Martin Luther King when he said, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
As a naïve 19 year-old making his way living in Western Europe, by luck or chance I found myself a frequent guest at massive governmental refugee housing complexes. It was easy to make friends. The difficulty was in trying to digest the most heart-breaking stories for which, at that point, I had no context: the civil conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the constant turmoil of those fleeing the Middle East and Central Asia, the DRC and Sudan. I remember one woman specifically whose face will always be with me, as she told me the harrowing story that was her life, and without a shred of self-pity, a single tear streamed fiercely down her cheek, betraying her courage on what was otherwise a steel expression. Overcome, and overwhelmed, I had no idea how to help her. I didn't help her: an abiding regret. But in the years that have followed, I've become convinced that her ability to deal with her situation could be increased with the aid of compassionate neighbors and a welcoming community. I decided that no matter where I was, I'd be a part of that community. I don't remember her name, but I've seen her face with that single tear in the eyes of the hundreds of refugees I've had the joy to serve since that time.
The Power of Cinema
I remember being 21 years old, slightly less naïve but eager to understand the greater tapestry of the scattered stories I had encountered among my refugee friends in Europe. A child of suburbia in urban-sprawled Phoenix, I had no idea what an art house movie theater was but somehow stumbled upon an early trailer for Hotel Rwanda. A rush of urgency came upon me as I found myself driving an hour to the nearest non-50-screen-megatheater. I had friends back in Belgium who had fled Rwanda and Burundi, who told me their first-hand tales of violence and escape. I knew their stories but lacked a visual. In the case of Hotel Rwanda, I was also drawn by the symbol of someone, an individual, Paul Rusesabagina, who seemed reluctant at first to help others. Then, and beautifully, once he recognized it as his destiny in that moment and time and embraced the responsibility, I felt something awaken inside of me as well. Alone in the dark movie theater, despite my peaceful city and non-genocidal environment, I silently embraced the same responsibility.
Then in 2011, in an odd turn of events and serendipitous Twitter connections, I found myself headed to New Orleans for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, an event of which I had previously never heard. The conference for me was like realizing I wasn't the only sheep in the pasture. There were other idealistic and driven people out there like me who give a damn and give a lot to their communities, their neighbors and the world. My heart soared; and in a very real way, NCVS was a turning point for me. It was a time to renew vows of citizenship and responsibility. Vows I had made before at previous turning points.
There are so many ways to be of service. In the past two years since I first experienced NCVS in the Big Easy, I joined my local Red Cross to volunteer at summer youth camps and inspire more future volunteers. I became a mentor with my local office of the International Refugee Committee to youth from Somalia and discovered not only how personally rewarding taking a "little brother" to the zoo, or helping with his homework, going to his soccer games is, but how helpful such easy (and fun!) service can be to him, his family and his circle of influence -- all for the price of a few hours per week.
Then I moved across the country, took the first job I could get at America's favorite coffee shop and found a kinship with fellow Starbucks community volunteers, feeding the homeless and raising money for American jobs. I've hosted cultural nights at international restaurants from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C. and I've brought people together in social but meaningful ways. Now, I've taken those experiences and started my own social organization for service and learning in the community. The Greatness Initiative Social Club is my way of bringing more people around me to experience what I love: volunteering and service.
Being a part of the Millennial generation, I feel like my peers and I have heard a million times how "special" we are and how each individual can make a difference. I'm not sure exactly how helpful it is to buy stock in our own "special-ness," but I know that I can make a difference. I refuse to believe the problems in my neighborhood, or the needs of the underserved, can't be addressed and improved in some small way by doing my part to reach out beyond my familiar surroundings. Again, as the Reverend King said, "Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve." And, of course, he's right. Life is much richer, and exciting this way. Making every interaction, every day, a turning point.
Follow Joseph Peterson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/planetjoseph