Kristen Brooke Winters, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander First Prize Winner, Student Address
Friday, May 26, 2000 "Community Service: A Gift of Hope"
Story posted May 26, 2000
Community Service: A Gift of Hope
Reverend Gomes, President Edwards, Dean Bradley, members of the Bowdoin community and guests; it is my honor and privilege to welcome you to Baccalaureate 2000. I am so grateful for this opportunity to address you and members of the Class of 2000 my friends and mentors with whom I have shared my life for the past four years. All of you have contributed to making me the person I am now. All of you have touched my life, even if with just a smile or a friendly hello, and I want to thank you for that, for showing me your humanity. Today, I would like to share mine. I'd like to share the importance compassion and community service hold in each one of our lives. I believe that only in caring for and helping one another do we find the true meaning of humanity. This concept seems so simple and yet we often overlook its significance.
What is community service? And why is it so important to preserve as a fundamental aspect of any society? Community service is the weaving together of the strengths and weakness of a group; it is the rich helping the poor, the healthy helping the sick, the content helping the disheartened. However, it is not only the powerful who help the frail; rather, it is both who teach and better one another. It is only in learning about those unlike ourselves that we can gain a greater appreciation of the world in which we live. It is only in helping one another that we can reach our full potential as human beings.
Furthermore, community service does not necessarily have to be a large-scale project to benefit a great number of people. It does not have to entail giving money to a charity. It can come in the form of someone who is willing to listen to a person who feels alone and abandoned. It can be offering to hold the door for someone who is not strong enough to hold it for himself. It can be giving a hug to someone who yearns to be held. Community service is helping each other to make life more bearable, more enjoyable. Too often, we are so caught up in our own lives that we neglect people whose lives we might have touched by even the simplest of acts. Life is not about making money or stepping on other people to get ahead. It is about caring and loving one another; guiding one another to achieve dreams and to fulfill aspirations. Some may argue that this idea of community service is much easier said than done. Everyone does, in fact, have to look out for themselves, to make a living and to achieve their own ambitions. Does this make them selfish? No. However, in a lifetime, is it that difficult to sacrifice a little time to make someone else happy? Is it a burden to offer a smile to someone who is having a hard day? I maintain that it is not, but unfortunately, all too often I have witnessed people who walk on by, too busy or too embarrassed to stop to help someone in need. I am not implying that these people are insensitive or inherently 'evil'; no one can blame them for being products of a society that does not foster interdependence but promotes autonomy. One of my friends asked me once why I smile and greet people I don't know. I was surprised at the question and thought everyone did it. More and more, I see that many people will not greet those they pass or ask them how they are unless they are acquaintances or friends. It seems that people have become so estranged that even a simple 'hello' is often perceived as out of the ordinary. How then can one expect people to help each other if even talking to a 'stranger' is considered odd and even perhaps inappropriate? I have not lost faith in humanity! Although I have witnessed estrangement and even what may seem to be indifference, I have also seen so much love and caring in this world that it fills my heart with hope.
My family is very poor. I remember living homeless on a beach in California when I was young. I remember being called names in school because my mother couldn't afford to buy me the 'cool' clothes. I remember feeling like I didn't measure up because of the labels that my social status had afforded me: dirty, ignorant, welfare queen. However, I also recall those who were there to help when it seemed like everyone else had turned their backs. I have built friendships with people who were able to look beyond my poverty and to love the person inside. Over the years, many people have helped my family to reach a state in which life is no longer a daily struggle, but a world of opportunities.
As I have mentioned, community service is not only about giving but also about learning from those you help. I have been fortunate to have had experiences in which people have taught me that no matter what my own struggle, there is always someone who is less fortunate and rather than dwell on what I don't have, I should relish what I do have. The summer after my first year at Bowdoin, I worked at Camp Harkness, a summer camp for mentally and physically challenged adults and children. I will never forget one of my campers who at the age of nine came down with a high fever that rendered him severely mentally disabled. Now, Phil is in his thirties and he does not see his challenge as a setback. He is able to recall his childhood years prior to the trauma; however, rather than dwell on how "unfortunate" he is now, he considers himself to be one of the luckiest people in the world. I remember how he would run up to everyone and tell them how much he loves them and how much God loves them. Whether Phil knew these people or not was of no consequence. Life is beautiful, and he wants everyone to see what wonderful gifts that God has provided them. Phil, and many of my campers, taught me to look beyond the negative in life and to see how lucky I am. Here were these people stripped of their mental and physical abilities, and yet, they rejoiced! How refreshing! I helped them through the daily routines of their lives, but the gift they gave me in return is immeasurable. How sad it is that society often labels the disabled as mere liabilities. They are people just like anyone else and what they have to give such honesty and love is awe-inspiring.
During my time at Bowdoin, I was a volunteer at Dionne Commons, one of the local nursing homes. It was often difficult to go there and to witness people who were awaiting death, people who had given up on life because society had given up on them. One woman would often talk to me about how horrifying it was to know she was losing her mind. Others would sadly discuss how no one ever visited them and how they eagerly awaited my visits. I visited them to let them know that they are still loved and that their lives are still important. In turn, they taught me about God, about love, success, hardship, and joy through the stories they told. They humbled me, the invincible young adult who knew all the answers to life, and they also instilled a sense of excitement about the journey on which I was to embark my future.
Recently, I was in New York City, and I encountered many homeless people asking for money. Some people I know think that the majority of the homeless people are hiding behind a scam to collect unneeded money. Yet, the pain in these people's eyes is far too real to be an act. The rags they wear in the cold and their emaciated bodies reflect that they have come to a crossroad at which they have to sacrifice their dignity in order to survive. I ask, who would put themselves in such a position to scam in order to gain a dollar or two? It was very difficult for me not to give away every cent I had to these people who were pleading. There was one old woman who was shivering and who quietly asked for some change. All I could spare was a dollar, and as I gave it to her, she pulled me close and said "God bless you, dear." That woman, whom many people pass by without even a glance, touched my life. All I gave her was a dollar, which nowadays can barely buy a candy bar, and yet she was so grateful and so happy. My interaction with that woman was community service. We helped each other in a way that is more meaningful than money or any quantitative measure. We made a connection, which helped us, both to have faith in life and in humanity.
Here at Bowdoin, I have overheard students speak about a barrier between the rich and the poor. I would like those who are poor to try to keep in mind that being rich does not equate to greed or selfishness. Likewise, I should hope that those who are rich realize that poverty is not defined by ignorance and filth. Let us try to get beyond the labels that our social classes afford us. There is so much more to people than their income.
Community service is a difficult concept to define. I think a quote by Hellen Keller synthesizes it well. She proposed that "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt within the heart." Community service is about helping one another through life's obstacles and hardships and joining together to rejoice in the beauty that the world has to offer. Community service is not about giving money to some charity once in awhile to fulfill a quota of good deeds or about helping someone in order to show to someone else that you are a good citizen. It is not a once-in-awhile activity or a mere title for a resume. It is about a connection that one makes with someone else--family, a friend, a complete stranger. Community service is helping one another to find hope in a world that is sometimes scary and bleak. It is a gift that we give to others, and thereby, give to ourselves. Only through giving can we make this world more livable and only through loving can we become the best people that we can be.
To the Class of 2000: we have all spent many sleepless nights to reach this point in our lives. As we go out into the 'real world' let us not forget that we are not alone in our struggles and our successes. Our lives are interconnected with those we meet. Only in helping one another are we truly human.
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