AmeriCorp Week Kick-Off 2011!
When I was five and was asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” in a shining moment of intelligence, I answered, “A firetruck.”
Fast forward to age 14. I hated school, I hated education, I hated everything. Angsty and bitter, the last thing I’d want to do was make the world a better place.
At age 18, I entered Duke University to study biomedical engineering. And after dabbling in chemistry, biology and sociology, I discovered Public Policy, specifically in the fields of education and health.
Nine months ago, I arrived in New York City, two suitcases in hand and no knowledge of boroughs, metro cards, or even which organization I would be working for through the NYC Civic Corp.
One of the last papers I wrote during my time at university defended the opinion that service learning had no place in elementary or middle schools. After all, the complexities of service learning and philanthropy were far too difficult for students of this age group.
I currently work for Common Cents, creators of the Penny Harvest. This year-long program has students not only collect pennies but decide where these pennies should go in actions of philanthropy and service-learning. And as life would have it, the primary focus for this program is elementary and middle school students. My role at Common Cents is a School Support Fellow.
Of the 750 schools that participate in the program, I manage the 143 located in Harlem, Washington Heights and Easter Queens, from Flushings to Laurelton with Bayside, Forest Hills and Jamaica in between. I work with amazing teachers, parent coordinators and other school staff to tailor the Penny Harvest to each individual school. Part of the perk is visiting schools and interacting with students face to face.
Often times, the purpose of my visit is purely observational or to talk briefly about Common Cents and provide a motivational speech. But more often, these conversations will shift entirely. At PS 132, I became one class’s social studies lesson’the students seemingly never have meet an Asian person before. Questions of cultural heritage to even what I ate or what I celebrated became points of learning and hopefully an eradication of some stereotypes.
Of the 30+ schools I have visited, I probably have fielded questions like these for more than half. I mention this example, not as a remark on society or cultural barriers but as a nice surprise for each of my visits. Visits intended for one manner became educational opportunities in ways I didn’t even fathom.
About two months ago, I went to a school that had just started the Penny Harvest. With a brand new person in charge, I was invited to help lead a discussion with the seventh and eighth grade student council about issues they care about.
Naturally, we touched upon Justin Beiber and Glee. But as conversations continued, we started talking about racism, abuse, the general apathy in our generation. So I asked the question I hesitate to ask myself: “If, there are so many issues to work with, from drug use to teenage pregnancy to violence to hunger, it can be overwhelming and honestly, you can’t fix it all. So why even bother?” It is the same question that at age 14, had me hating life. And in the two minutes of silence where I started panicking because I had single-handedly derailed these students from service and of caring for the world, one of the girls - barely spoke a word the entire time - simple stated that though we are only drops in the ocean, that each of us are needed to make a difference.
I met the better version of my 14-year-old self that day. And it was nothing short of awesome. This is the beauty of service: it is a reciprocal relationship. I cannot really describe the impact I have made in my schools beyond statistics. This year, Penny Harvest students collected and are now in the process of allocating over $500,000 to local community organizations. Through our end of the year event, we raised $30,340.23 for relief and recovery efforts in Japan.
Each of the 150 Civic Corps members, by June 30th, will have served over 1700 hours. We have painted rooftops, planted trees and helped connect dots between communities, people and service. But even beyond the actions that we do, a life of service is but that: a life, an identity. Beyond the actions that we take or the attitudes we have, service transcends to a point of being. This is what a year of service has been. This is what a life of service will become. And fire trucks aside, this is who I hope to be.