The Meaning of Service

Happy Holidays!

In this season of giving, I wanted to “give” you a glimpse of some activities I’ve done in Asheville. I haven’t posted many (if any) photos but here are a few to see 🙂 I spent Thanksgiving with two good friends of mine from school, Maddy and Sam, and most of Sam’s extended family. We cooked, baked, ate, lounged, frisbee golfed, did yoga, practiced headstands, played fooseball, played cards, and relaxed in Chapel Hill for the five days I  spent with Sam’s family. It was the best self-care I could done.

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This time away was the perfect break. I was able to collect myself and recenter my thoughts. During our past two reflections (both before Thanksgiving), Selena spoke with us about the importance of self-care. It’s good for anyone to practice but particularly for those who are posed with ethical, emotional challenges everyday due to their work. During orientation, the YAV staff also broke this down for us because the majority of the placements we were receiving put us in challenging, energy consuming situations daily. One challenge I’ve encountered within these past three months is coming to terms with variance in every YAVs experience, and learning that while my work may differ greatly from other YAVs, it can still be exhausting and demanding at times.

I knew from the get-go that my work at Habitat would not be the same as my housemates. The work I do at Habitat is largely “behind the scenes” work, done at computer and desk. There are times throughout my work- when we have groups of 10-14 individuals who come from out of town for a week long build. These weeks I act as the main contact for these groups, sort of like a hostess. To prepare before the week and throughout I am running between the office, the grocery store, the jobsite, and dinners with our Partner Families, and entirely running the show, with all eyes on me. While these events will come way more frequently throughout the end of winter and early spring, most of the work I do on a day to day basis is at my desk.

For a while it was hard to understand that the work I was doing was comparable to the work other YAVs are doing, that we were all doing “service.” After hearing Selena talk about the ways in which service varies, I began to see my work as meaningful. Many individuals do service or volunteer in some capacity because of the immediate gratification they get, the “I’m a good person because I took the time out my day to help someone else” sort of feeling. They seek out volunteer opportunities that put them in a direct service setting. But all service isn’t like that. The point of service is not to make yourself feel better, but to try to work against our systemically corrupted society that thrives off of the fact that everyone is not on an equal playing field.

I usually resist making strong political statements because I am never looking for an argument or drama (hello 9’s) but if this year has taught me anything, or more so proved my previous thoughts, it is that capitalism sucks. There I said it. It is a system that only survives if some one or group is worse off than others. It lures everyone into wanting more. More money, more things. It sets up people to fail. If you can’t compete in market “x” than too bad for you, guess life is going to be a little bit harder. And once you have been bumped down, it’s hard to fight your way out. Take affordable housing in Asheville for example. The more I have come to know our Partner Families at Habitat, the more I see how easy it can be to loose everything you have. To go from a well off, middle class lifestyle to debt, stress, and not enough support to make it through.

Our system now relies on charity work, using it as a crutch for those who do not have basic needs. Service work can involve doing direct “hand-out” work, but needs to focus more heavily on getting at the real issue. Why are so many people living on the streets or overcrowded houses to begin with? Why are individuals not able to pay rent each month? Their medical bills? Once you start realizing how it all links back to a corruption within our capitalist, American system, you start to shift your eyes to the larger picture- injustices that breathe through our way of life and are the backbone to capitalism. Charity work in many ways perpetuates the problem. We are saying that it is OK to count homeless shelters as shelter for an individual. But it isn’t. They don’t live there long term and cannot rely on a shelter day in and day out to provide a warm, clean bed for them.

What this rant is trying to get at is how I learned that while my work may not be direct service,  where I say, “here is a hot meal” and have temporarily fixed a problem, it is service work against a larger picture injustice, the inability for working class families to provide safe, decent housing for themselves and their families. Habitat does really awesome things! It definitely took me some time to understand how I played a part in the picture, but have now found a small parcel of meaning to my hours behind the desk and hostessing groups.

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