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Service in Pursuit of a More Perfect Union Takes on Many Forms

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So as individual members of a collective community, we all have a responsibility to contribute to the greater society that dictates our access to freedom, opportunity, and the sense of fulfillment that accompanies the notion that we are all a part of something larger than ourselves.

Skilled labor, service employees, educators, journalists, government representatives, medical practitioners, public safety officials, engineers, scientists, lawyers, financial workers, farmers, technology experts, military service members, and the countless individuals that embody every possible meaning of the word "family" all come together to determine the quality of life for one another.

It is as simple as it is incredible to realize that the greatness of our nation is completely dependent upon the strength of the bonds that hold us all together as a single people. Yet the scenario that often plays itself out in today's media stems from the fact that once we are capable of overcoming the divisiveness of the day, our willingness to reach out and to form meaningful relationships between our coworkers, neighbors, and fellow citizens derives from the level of fulfillment that each of us experiences when we make a commitment to serve others.

That observation, in and of itself, possesses the ability to affect transformational change in America, because more than anything else, it pinpoints the most significant incentive for-profit, nonprofit, and government actors can target with respect to improving social outcomes. In every sense of the phrase, understanding how to increase personal fulfillment through selfless service is the bedrock for any potential long-term solution to addressing the root causes that allow injustice, poverty, and inequality to fester in our communities. Yet on an individual level, it begs the question: how do I personally find fulfillment and happiness in this world while working alongside my peers to improve the conditions of others?

Where in full disclosure, I have been very fortunate in my life because I have experienced a great deal of happiness through volunteerism and learning how to serve others; and specifically, learning how to serve others in the most meaningful, strategic, resource conscious, data-driven methods available to the field of improving the human condition - but often bolstering those "academic best practices" with a healthy dose of common sense coupled with the immediacy of trying to affect change now.

Ultimately my motivations for committing my life to service are certainly cumulative in nature, and largely associated with the perceived success that I was able to register in the hindsight of my own mind when looking back on my ability to affect change. Yet time and time again, a pattern emerges that brings great meaning to my life and a distinct faith that my days in this world will not be squandered by sloth, greed, or the risk of praising false idols. This pattern is true in my military service. This pattern has been true of my national service. And this pattern remains true in every action I make as a nonprofit executive and a community development professional while working to improve the very same neighborhoods that instilled my sense of values based upon hard work, determination, and a blue-collar mentality.

But truly, the best way to convey this message is to share the story of an outstanding individual, an individual that understood how to find a greater sense of purpose in this life and someone that "walked the walk" more than he ever "talked the talk." His name is Mr. Brown and I had the distinct honor of learning from him as an AmeriCorps volunteer while living and working on Chicago's Southside as a middle school science teacher in one of America's most violent neighborhoods located near the border of the city's New City and Englewood communities.

Unfortunately though, let me preface, this story does not start with a positive note, but its conclusion is profound in nature.

Let me begin.

One morning, a young lady that was a second-grade student at Visitation Grammar School decided to slide headfirst down the newly installed playground equipment that has built on the school premises near the teachers' parking lot. The entire design was actually kept under lock and key and surrounded by a chain-link fence to prevent rival gang members from spray-painting their insignias on the equipment, which they seemingly did on a weekly basis to settle their ever-changing territory disputes.

Nonetheless, gang activity is not the heart of this matter - narcotics are. Particularly, the proper disposal of used hypodermic needles associated with heroine-drug addiction. Where in this instance, a "user" hopped the tall chain-link fence overnight and left his or her needle propped up against the rubber wood chips near the bottom of the big red slide that served as the centerpiece of the playground.

As a result, the needle ultimately found itself stuck in the palm of the hand of the young female after she decided to use her hands as a brace as she exited the mouth of the slide. You can imagine. Parents were in an uproar later that day. What if this had been their child? But luckily, the seven-year was immediately rushed to the hospital and everything was determined to be fine with her health considering the incident.

Yet with that said, the situation left our principal, Sister Jean, in a tough predicament. Should she restrict access to the playground and allow students to play in the gymnasium before and after school or should she risk the chance of this scenario playing itself out again? Where admittedly, Sister Jean is a five-foot-three-inch tall Lithuanian Nun that has served the Visitation school community for more than twenty years. She is tough as nails and isn't afraid to make difficult decisions. But it was a hard choice for her to make.

At this point though, this is where Mr. Brown comes into play. From what I have been told, he approached Sister Jean and asked for the keys to the playground the same afternoon that the second grader was rushed to the hospital. Her immediate response in the heat of the moment was: "No way. Why do I want to give you access to the playground? I want to restrict access to the playground to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Mr. Brown replied: "We can't let troubled folks determine whether or not our children have fun while playing in the playground before and after school. Give me the keys. I'm going to rake the woodchips everyday at six o'clock in the morning. I'm going to make sure that nothing can hurt our students when something might be hidden in those woodchips." Sister Jean thought about it overnight and then she obliged; and everyday after, for the next three weeks, I saw Mr. Brown raking the woodchips.

To be honest though, I didn't realize that Sister Jean and Mr. Brown's agreement had been made. As a result, I really didn't know why Mr. Brown, who was in his late 60s to early 70s, was working so hard before and after school. But one morning, Mr. Brown called me over from the teachers' parking lot for a frank conversation.

It began with the phrase: "Mr. K, real talk. Come here for a second," which for those that don't know, is the preface for a very candid and serious interaction between two people in the community. Once I came up to the opposite side of chain-link fence, still holding a box full of science equipment for the day's lesson on volcanoes, he immediately continued to get to the essence of the wisdom that he was trying to impart on me:

"Mr. K, my grandson told me you were in the service and you finished school." I replied, "Yes sir, right down the street in fact," referring to the coincidence that my alma mater, the University of Chicago, was just a few miles directly East of where we were standing at the time.

He wasn't impressed by that fact, or where I went to school for that matter, but he continued questioning: "Ok. Then why are you here? I tell Kentrel," Kentrel was Mr. Brown's step-grandson through marriage and a member of my eighth grade science class, "I tell Kentrel to do everything that you've already done so that one day he doesn't have to be here. Are you happy here, doing what you're doing - teaching and all?"

At the time, as a twenty-five year old man that had recently left the active-component of the U.S. Army, I hadn't been asked that question in years. So I responded in the only way I knew how, and I met his words with silence until I replied: "I don't know."

Mr. Brown immediately interrupted any attempt I might have had to explain my answer in greater detail with this very profound statement:

"You're a young guy. I didn't think you would know. Do you know what the only two ways to be truly happy in this world are?" But before I could say anything, he switched his tone of voice to sound like a preacher as he pointed to the tip of his index finger in a counting motion with the top of his hand facing the ground: "The first way to be happy is to figure out what you love and getting a plan to make sure you do it everyday. Do you know what you love?"

Again, I barely knew if I was happy, much less what I loved. So once again, I met his questioning with silence.

Mr. Brown didn't miss a beat, "I didn't think so. The second way to be happy in life goes like this," he then began to point in a circular motion with his right hand as he talked, first to a pile of broken glass that was once a liquor bottle and then to a series of vacant homes that had been abandoned for quite some time, where all the while he held the rake in his off hand before refocusing his attention back on me and he said: "You take a good look around this world," and then he paused, "and you see what you hate and you try to fix it."

The seriousness in his tone made me immediately want to ease the tension of the moment - plus I was still unaware of the agreement that he had made with Sister Jean to rake the woodchips as a safety precaution for our students using the playground - so I questioned his wisdom with a very immature response: "Does that mean you love raking woodchips?"

Mr. Brown didn't take offense to my ignorance. He just said: "No. I don't love raking woodchips. But I do hate seeing needles stuck in the hands of little girls."

Mr. Brown has since passed away; yet to this day and hopefully to the day that I do the same, I will forever remember those words. But really, more than the words, it was the sentiment behind those words and the fact that he coupled those words with direct action, which resonates so much with me today. Because for a very long time that is why I decided to commitment my life to a life of service. I just never knew how to put together the right words to explain it. But now that I do and I can confidently write that I am a happier person in this world because I believe my service is working to "fix something that I hate."

What do I hate then? What conditions am I trying to improve for my community, my city, and my country? Where should I begin? First and foremost, I hate the fact that more people were murdered in the City of Chicago last calendar year than U.S., U.K., and allied service members in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Secondly, I hate the fact that in the midst of the most taxed constituency in America, Chicago Public Schools is following through on a plan to oversee the largest school closure in the history of American public education and the State of Illinois is facing the gravest public pension crisis in its history due to the either irresponsible, ignorant, or greedy decisions of our elected leaders over the past two decades. But most importantly, beyond specific policies that affect the people that I care most about, I hate the fact that hate is used to divide a once great city, a once strong state, and a once hopeful nation by people in positions of authority.

What will it take to transform my negative emotions of frustration and disbelief into the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment? My answer is simple: my service.

If you would like to learn more or to help Pete and Leave No Veteran Behind, please email him: pkalenik@leavenoveteranbehind.org