2008-03-10 • Volume 2 • Issue 5
A Matter of Time
Eliza Butler is a middle-aged African-American woman who lives in a brownstone in East New York, Brooklyn. Across the street from her home is a tiny community garden she started years ago when her children went off to college. It is crammed between barren plots of undeveloped land. The sun sometimes blocked out by the rumbling elevated train, whose conductors reach out and wave at Ms. Butler when she is outside working in her garden. This train was one of the first things I noticed upon arriving at Ms. Butler’s garden in the summer before my senior year of high school. Another image I will never forget is the red, yellow, and green sign that graced the entrance to the garden. Painted on a rotted piece of wood, its letters faded with tiny flowers drawn in between them, was a sign with the name of Ms. Butler’s garden: New Vision.
I came upon Ms. Butler’s garden while researching community service opportunities in Brooklyn. A non-profit organization called Green Thumb referred me to Ms. Butler, and from then on, other volunteers from my high school and I would travel to her garden every weekend to help her weed, plant, and renovate her garden. Ms. Butler seemed surprised every time we showed up, but she soon began to take a personal interest in us, fixing us snacks and asking us about our lives. She also told us about the things she was doing around the neighborhood: holding a toiletries drive for a local church, raising money for a homeless shelter, and donating fruits and vegetables from her garden to both causes.
Ms. Butler amazed me with her willingness to dedicate so much of her time to others. I asked her once how she found the time to do all of these things, and she told me that when you want to see change happen, you don’t find time, you make it. Still, the biggest challenge I’ve faced since arriving at Rice has been making enough time to continue doing service. I realize that my priorities have shifted since high school, and responsibilities like school, jobs, and extracurricular activities have overshadowed the promise I made to myself to live up to Ms. Butler’s principle of effecting change.
This may be a consequence of the lack of awareness among on-campus college students of the problems that face their surrounding communities. We are in many respects sheltered from the harsh realities that most Americans face today: poverty, sickness, and the lack of educational resources. Living on-campus also makes transportation to volunteer sites inconvenient if one is without a vehicle. Furthermore, certain aspects of college life, including late-night study sessions and parties, make it difficult for students to wake up early enough on weekends to take part in service activities. While I admit that all of these challenges have complicated the act of community service for college students, none of them make it impossible for us to seek volunteer opportunities close by and at reasonable hours. To me, this is not an issue of accessibility, but of motivation. We simply need to make the time.
And making the time to do community service is not as difficult as it sounds. Rice has numerous resources for students interested in volunteering, most of which are funneled through the Rice Student Volunteer Program (RSVP). RSVP’s many programs allow students to do a wide range of activities, from serving homeless individuals breakfast at a church across the street from Rice every Wednesday morning to ESL tutoring for Rice staff members who wish to improve their English skills. Furthermore, the Community Involvement Center has extended service trips, including alternative spring breaks and summer service internships. The most wide-reaching service event at Rice, however, is undoubtedly Outreach Day, which sends close to 200 students out to nearby non-profit organizations for a massive day of volunteering. This spring’s Outreach Day will be Saturday, March 29.
till, in a university of close to 3,000 undergraduates, having only 200 of them show up on the single most important day of service at Rice is not the most impressive figure. I believe that is partly due to the fact that students believe that making the time to do service means sacrificing the time to do other more self-beneficial tasks. We are in college primarily because we have dreams and goals that we hope to realize upon graduation. These dreams and goals do not often require service to others. However, the benefits of doing service extend well beyond the act of giving to others. In fact, they reward us in many ways.
Research provides evidence that volunteerism has a direct correlation to certain aspects of an individual’s quality of life. Therefore, while we bury our noses in books to try to find the path to a well-paying job or a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we may in fact be impeding the accomplishment of those very goals. Instead of looking inward to improve ourselves, we should consider reaching out in an effort to simultaneously help others and build the character traits and interpersonal skills set necessary to succeed in life.
These effects are secondary in nature to what lies at the core of service: compassion. Surely, Eliza Butler does not wake up each morning and ask herself what she can learn from the homeless man she hands a toiletry kit to that day. She realizes instead that there is a need present in her community: a pressing issue that, through its damaging influence on the lives of others, has led her to believe that things must change. Only when we learn to recognize the spirit of another in such a way, to think carefully about why certain people are faced with these challenges, and to focus on the most efficient way to fix that problem, then do we begin to understand why compassion is so essential to human existence. The most difficult part of this process is not simply realizing what must change, but realizing that we are the ones that are capable of effecting that change. Just as Ms. Butler had a “New Vision” for her neighborhood, I have one for Rice: that every student will make the time to make a change.
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