Helping hands help themselves

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April 22, 2008

3:23 AM

Community service is overrated. Ours is a college that embraces volunteering the way other universities embrace effective fundraising, but sometimes I wonder just how noble this endeavor is. Too many people on our campus engage in service to feel better about themselves, which, if you ask me, is pretty damn selfish.

For example, I met a girl at a party last week who was having a bad day. After probing this girl for details, she explained why her outlook was so bleak.

“I was at the blood drive and they wouldn’t let me give any blood,” she said.

As someone who gets lightheaded at the thought of needles, I could not sympathize with this do-gooder. In high school, it was my ironic fortune to run the campus blood drive. Throughout that day, I avoided the school gym where the drive was being held. The mere thought of plasma leaving the bodies of my classmates left me nauseous.

During this blood drive, I had to come up with elaborate excuses for why I could not give blood. My only alternative was to tell the truth and look like a squeamish hypocrite. At first I explained that I had contracted a rare blood parasite while doing relief work in Guam. When I got tired of that yarn, I told classmates I was a robot.

Back at the party, the girl explained why she loved giving blood.

“It just makes me feel so good to give blood, you know,” she explained.

To be honest, I was disgusted with her justification of giving blood. Instead of doing it because she wanted to help people, this girl was solely interested in making herself feel like a better person. While the end result might still be noble, such a selfish justification for service makes all of her O-negative blood seem as useful as kitchen grease. Unfortunately, service is constantly lorded over members of this community not as a choice but as an obligation. When I went to Paris during spring break, I had to pretend that I was going on a service trip just to avoid mocking glances.

“Yeah, I’m actually going to Paris on a service trip,” I would say.

“I’m building a schoolhouse for blind paraplegic orphans with AIDS.”

Although I believe in putting myself first, I still enjoy helping other people. If I were comfortable with needles, then I would have given blood during the school blood drive. And, if I were on a service trip to Africa, I probably would have gone gung-ho for painting an orphanage. Community service should be something you enjoy doing for others, not something that you use to gain a sense of self worth. Instead, service becomes a way of padding a resume and looking good during job interviews. While some at the College certainly do love helping people, too often I wonder whom they are trying to help.

Despite their unclear motivations, people in the College’s service community seem to have a bottomless well of energy that they devote to helping others. At the Celebration of Service, an awards ceremony for the Office of Student Volunteer Services, I was appalled at the audience’s enthusiasm. The ceremony was celebrating the College’s numerous service organizations. Sudden whoops of “Yeah Girl” or “Holler” interrupted the various speakers, and my fellow audience members clapped with the power of an army of Robocops as various service leaders were distinguished.
The most telling part of the ceremony was a PowerPoint presentation that began and ended the festivities. Some of the pictures were interesting and depicted orphans playing soccer or doctors performing checkups. However, too many pictures displayed people smiling at the camera. Instead of looking like weathered saints, the people in those pictures were grinning, and many looked washed. Either they weren’t working hard enough, or they really are better people than me. After spending a day building an orphanage, my body would be so sore I wouldn’t want to walk, let alone pose for a photo.

But this summer, I will be taking my own service trip to China. I will be volunteering with this really great service organization called “The James Damon Fund.” Your proceeds will help me buy cheap knockoff American goods and take weekend vacations to the beach. I accept cash, checks and most credit cards. The paraplegic orphans I adopted from Paris will be taking your calls at our toll-free number. They are standing by.

James Damon is a Confusion Corner columnist. He is quite serious about donations to “The James Damon Fund.”

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