If my undergraduate studies taught me anything, it was the importance of community service. “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve” was the school motto drilled into my head from freshman orientation until the day I received my college diploma.
Back then, community service came naturally for most of us. We weren’t groomed to simply punch up our resumes and jockey for jobs, we were encouraged to be useful. We recognized that the interdependent nature of a fully inclusive, fully functioning society relied on all of us, and giving back was our duty.
With the convenience of college life, community service opportunities were plentiful. We could attend an activity fair at the beginning of the school year, visit countless service organizations’ information booths and sign up to lend a helping hand.
However, like a host of other realities that hit us once we stepped away from the cozy comfort of our alma mater, the real world operated quite differently. In the years following graduation, the rigors of getting our careers off the ground made community service just another item on a neverending todo list.
In all honesty, with the exception of serving on boards, councils or planning teams, I lost sight of what real handson community service looked like. Then, one day I opened the mail to learn that I had been summoned to jury duty. During the orientation process, the jury coordinator suggested that once we fulfilled this social obligation, we would leave feeling we had given back to the community in the truest sense.
Over the two weeks that the trial lasted, I upheld my responsibility to see that justice was done. And the jury coordinator was right. Our judicial process works for the people, but only when the people work for it. Everyday life is no different.
Granted, people with disabilities are familiar with the additional hurdles that may come with finding a good fit for community service opportunities, but thankfully some of the preparatory work is only a few clicks away on our computer keyboards. (If you don’t have a personal computer, one is generally available for your use at your neighborhood library.)
Individuals who are interested in service can find opportunities through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which provides resources on a statebystate basis. Those with disabilities can pursue a successful community service experience through the National Service to Employment Project (NextSTEP).
NextSTEP is intended to eventually lead from experience to employment, and is headed up by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; it’s funded by the CNCS. The project conducts research, provides technical assistance and creates demonstration projects focusing on people with disabilities in volunteer and community service roles.
NextSTEP promotes service as a way to contribute to the community, gain valuable skills, explore career possibilities and develop social networks along the road to meaningful employment, while providing an accessible opportunity for people with disabilities to volunteer through such programs as AmeriCorps.
“For some individuals with disabilities, the power of a service experience is the opportunity to give back to the community and be viewed for the contribution one can make to others,” said Sheila Fesko, project director of NextSTEP. “That transformative experience has contributed to individuals’ personal and professional development, as well as their growth as community members.”
Between high school graduation and college, Alex Freeman, a NextSTEP participant, served in an organization called City Year in Boston, where he tutored students, cotaught a class, and planned a daylong disability awareness workshop for students. “I honestly think that without that year, I would not be as prepared for college as I am today,” Freeman observed.
His contribution is felt far beyond the local community where he served; in fact, the ripple effects touch us all.
“National service participants develop an enormous sense of selfworth from contributing to the wellbeing of others,” said Jewel BazilioBellegarde, former senior training officer of Disability Inclusion for the CNCS. “Community service participants problemsolve; they contribute to society and make a difference.”
The significance of that concept is clearer now than ever. That is what our college administrators tried to teach us when they chanted: “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.” In one way or another, we all gain from our communities. We must remember that giving back is equally important, even though opportunities to serve may not always come knocking at our door.
by Betsy Barkley Valnes
Betsy Barkley Valnes is a disability rights activist in the US and abroad.