Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
I didn’t always notice it or realize it as such, but service has always been a part of my life. I asked my mom how she encouraged a commitment to service in my sister Carolyn and me, and she said she always made it a point to align our service activities around 1) our interests; and 2) what we could understand.
When we were very young, we loved baking Christmas cookies, so we’d bake extra batches and take them to our elderly neighbors who didn’t get as much company during the holidays. This was an act of service, homegrown; but still, service. We would grumble at first because we’d have to leave our presents, but by the third year, when our neighbors realized we were coming back, they had presents waiting for us. Now it’s one of our favorite traditions, and it taught us something about the joy of service and how when you give, you get something back. It’s not always tangible what you get back, but our neighbors’ returned generosity made an impression on us.
As we got older and started begging for a dog, my mom made it clear we weren’t getting one, but challenged us to channel our love of dogs in a new way. Together, we planned a fundraising drive at the dog park for PAWS — it was so fun to go to the pet store and buy dog treats. We set up our tent at the dog park and waited — owners were excited to have treats and water for their dogs, and we got to pet and play with what seemed like a million dogs. I don’t recall how much money we raised, but I remember how proud we were when we went to the post office to get a money order and send the funds to PAWS, and the certificate we got in the mail acknowledging our efforts. I also remember how much work it is to be a dog owner and how I realized I wasn’t quite ready for that.
These early efforts were about aligning our service to the things we loved.
In elementary school, my mother looked for issues we could understand, and we volunteered at a homeless shelter. We were shocked to see people like us who didn’t have a home or food. We went shopping to buy what we would want in our lunches and supplies for crafts that we enjoyed, and every Sunday we returned — we even made friends. We could understand hunger and boredom, and we wanted to do what we could to help make that different for kids like us. I understand now that this experience was the beginning of my understanding of the importance of making a local impact.
As pre-teens, we went global — but, again, the introduction was simple. What?! There are places in the world where when you turn on the faucet the kids don’t get clean water? They have to walk for miles to get water? Why do the girls have to do it? We were outraged!
But, wait! If we set up a lemonade stand and raise $85, we can provide water and a toilet for a child for life? Let’s do it! So, we spent the summer selling lemonade — every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we put up our stand with the goal of making $85 a day. My mother (I see now, ever the planner) had us developing our 30-second pitches so that we knew what to say to “customers” (she taught us that word, too). As other neighborhood kids came along, they could help with fetching supplies; but you couldn’t get on the stand serving lemonade until you had your 30-second pitch down.
In mid-summer, we weren’t always so crazy about setting up our stand; but my mother reminded us that kids around the world weren’t always crazy about walking to get water, but they had to so their families could survive … and that we needed to live up to our commitment. So, we opened that stand for three days a week for five weeks that summer.
That lemonade stand got us noticed and me an invitation to join the Water1st International Youth Middle School Board. I’ve served on the youth board for six years. We’ve attended the Carry 5 and Bike for Water events for years now. I am proud to have led my family in raising more than $10,000 for Water1st during my time on the board.
As a teen, when I became more aware of issues impacting people of color and began to struggle with what it means to be a Black man in this country, my mom got a job at the Northwest African American Museum, where I then became a volunteer and a youth curator. I found out my grandfather had an intense love for Jimi Hendrix, so my time as a youth curator working on the “Bold as Love” exhibit was fun and rich in family connection. We didn’t know then that my grandfather wasn’t well, so I appreciate so much having had the time to bond with him around Jimi Hendrix before he passed away. My time at NAAM taught me so much about the importance of being in community and the strength that comes from community.
I’ve traveled to Peru (in eighth grade with the Evergreen School) and China (in tenth grade with Lakeside School) as part of my schools’ Global Service Learning programs. These early travel experiences have helped me be prepared for global experiences.
As I reflect on my service, I realize how much planning and thought my mom put into developing our service-mindedness. I always felt like I was making choices — there wasn’t a choice about whether or not we would be involved in community service, as this was a requirement in our house; but I did get to choose what kind of service I would get involved in. I am grateful that she led me to so many different and important opportunities. My service keeps me grounded in what’s important and it has developed my gratitude and my understanding that I have so much already.