Guest Post: Connecting our Community through Service by Linda Okoth

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As an educator, I am quite fond of accurate answers; yet, it is the questions I truly savor. Each interrogative leads to a unique realm of understanding. I know “What if…?” can be transformative because this question celebrates creative choice. In my world of all-school community service, my favorite questions are the ones that begin with “Why?” “Why?” enlightens context, leads to exploration, expands perspective and ultimately becomes a change agent. “Why?” begins a journey of awareness and invites the power to educate.

Community service is a powerful educational opportunity. As the name implies, it starts with an appreciation of community. Merriam Webster defines community as “the people with common interests living in a particular area.” This is certainly true of our Flint Hill community; we are united in our love of learning and life within our school. Anyone who has ever heard “Happy Birthday” sung to fellow Huskies in Lower School Inspiration, with Mrs. Cardell’s delicate piano accompaniment, will forever feel the deep connection we have with one another. We recognize and are grateful for the glue that holds us together.

What happens when we widen our definition of community to include all of Oakton, Fairfax County, or even the greater Washington D.C. metro area? Now it becomes more challenging to identify our common interests. How do we embrace the concept of community in a diverse population that includes admired business leaders, as well as those who are, say, incarcerated? What about people who are food and housing insecure? These latter examples are likely outside of our Flint Hill experience, yet all are fellow community members. Our sense of common interest could be strained when asked to include people whose insight, values, politics, and/or economic status are significantly different from our own.

I believe service, especially to those whose lives are different from our own, is the adhesive for holding the larger community together. We can acknowledge, especially during this Week of Thankful Giving, how and why we share our gifts, and we can honor their power for good and unity in a somewhat fractured world. In the process of serving others, we find commonality. At the heart of service is the recognition of our human needs and those of others: food, shelter, water, education, connection, love, purpose, and understanding. Indeed, we all have needs! When engaging in community service work, the initial thought, “We are helping them,” leads to an understanding that we are helping each other.

Sadly, within our community, there are those who have significant unmet needs. In Fairfax County alone, 30,000 children live in poverty and are deemed food insecure. As a former volunteer educator in the public school system, I connect with this statistic, because I have seen the impact of food insecurity on learning. Success and joy rarely occur on an empty stomach. The weight of this problem and its lifetime significance would be too painful to examine were it not for the fine organizations that work to alleviate that need in our community. Our students and their families, faculty, and staff contribute thousands of hours of volunteer service work every year, as well as donate goods, to nonprofit organizations such as Food for Others, Cornerstones, The Lamb Center, Women Giving Back, Northern Virginia Family Services, SHARE, Inc., Habitat for Humanity, and Special Olympics. Through these actions, we are demonstrating our ability to solve problems and provide ethical leadership. We find hope in being difference makers!

Having had three of my own children attend and graduate from Flint Hill, I am keenly aware of the parent role in encouraging and supporting community service work. Although my elder daughter, Mary, remembers that she was “eager” to volunteer with a local community service swim program, I recall her having a View article due, along with the typical load of weekend assignments pressing down on her when I dropped her off for her first session. Her car door may have slammed a bit in front of Providence Recreation Center, as I called out, “Good luck!” Eight years later, she wrote about her volunteer experience in her application to a graduate program in Social Work:

I owe my interest in and passion for community work to one of my earliest work experiences in high school. Having swum competitively since age six, I was eager to help with a learn-to-swim program for Latino youth called Nadar Por Vida, or “Swim For Life.” On my first night, I worked one-on-one with a girl named Brenda, who was my age. She was the first in her family to attend school in the United States and learn English. More importantly, that night, she was the first in her family to learn how to swim. When she struggled in the pool with fundamental skills, I provided encouragement by emphasizing that her motivation and tenacity mattered most. The program took place on Friday and Saturday nights, times during which area youth were most likely to be targeted for gang recruitment. The sound of bodies thrashing through the water was the sound of survival. As an active participant in Brenda’s experience, I saw my own experience more clearly. I recognized the incredible privilege in my ability to move through the water, my neighborhood, and the world without fear of drowning.

Community service is often viewed as an opportunity to “give back;” however, I believe community service is a mutual benefaction to those receiving and providing the service. As the Prayer for Peace advocates, “Let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that one receives ….” How better to achieve our own need for understanding of self and our place in the community than through service work? These gifts are best bestowed through proximal experiences — and often with people whose lives we might not otherwise have much intersection.

The Chinese ideogram for “benevolence” reminds me of what is essential in service work. It includes the character for a human being and the numeral two, signifying that kindness must be shared between people to exist. There is much work to be done. Please join me in giving thanks this holiday season for the kind and generous spirit we share with each other and our greater community through our thoughts, words, and actions.