volunteering and community

Earlier this week, my grandfather who was 88 passed away. He was a kind, gentle old man who always strived to do good, to help people. I remember when I was 7 or 8 years old, he was visiting us and my mother instructed him not to buy us soda from the corner store. Through a series of coded hand gestures, we managed to outsmart the parental unit and go for soda anyway. Cause we’re cool like that. He lived a great life and he will be missed by all those whose lives he illuminated with his presence. In light of his death, I’d like to dedicate this post to him. I think it’s fitting for he was an active member of his community and did what he could to improve it. Pour ma grandpere. In Grade 9, my high school teacher introduced us Harper Lee’s classic coming of age novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you went to high school in Ontario, then you can remember reading about the childhood adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill. You might recall a group of church ladies that met with Ms. Maudie and somewhat condescendingly, discussed the plight of a community in Africa, while blatantly ignoring the dire situation of some of the town’s residents. Coming into university and in high school, I was bombarded with opportunities to volunteer abroad – brighten some young depraved child’s life somewhere.  Before I go on, I’d like to say that I think international volunteering can be a great thing that can have a positive impact on people’s lives and people should definitely consider it as an option. That being said, I increasingly feel like volunteering has become a commodity in the world of hefty resumes. A gold star on the blackboard, a patch on the sleeve. In this rush to volunteer to gain the competitive edge, working in one’s community often gets shafted. Because frankly, saying you helped to build a school in rural Guatemala is more impressive than saying you served people at a soup kitchen, or read to school kids at your local library. Perhaps we need to rethink volunteering –retool it in our minds so that social justice takes precedent over our resumes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with putting volunteer activities on your resume – we just have to make sure its not our primary motivation. We also need to realize that volunteering is not about helping destitute people or lending people our pity. It’s about acknowledging problems and taking a proactive role to fix those problems whether those problems revolve around social justice, human rights, environmental protections, etc. In this sense, volunteering in your community and volunteering abroad essentially become two sides of the same coin. Both will have problems that aren't unique to the society you volunteer in. Which is why giving precedence to international volunteering over community based involvement is problematic, the problems of the developing world aren't purely restricted to those areas of the world. They manifest themselves in our society all the time and are therefore just as worthy of our attention. I believe that we all, myself included, have a responsibility to take care of our communities and volunteering is one outlet in which we can do that. But if you really want to volunteer internationally, then power to you. Just remember that we in the West, aren't necessarily free from the problems people face over there and that our struggle is one and the same. This semester, I will be volunteering monthly at soup kitchen at St. Basil’s Church on campus as part of the Tzedaka-Sadaqah Project, an interfaith volunteering project. I’d also like to invite you all to donate this month to the ASSU Food Drive in support of the Daily Bread Food Bank, we will waive the cost of photocopying a test for every non perishable food item you bring in. So, U of T, how will you give back this semester?

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