Pay it Forward

Community service. Maybe it’s the people with which I surround myself. Maybe it’s something to which I am drawn out of a desire share my blessings with others. I’ve always wondered the extent to which one should be pleased with their community service. Obviously there’s the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from knowing you helped someone else out… but I’ve found there are often pretty selfish reasons to get involved with community service: reputation, fun, networking.

In high school, there was an organization called Key Club which quickly became one of the largest student organizations at my school. It was an after-school group associated with the Kiwanis service leadership organization. According to the Key Club web site, they are the largest high school student organization in the world. The world. Unfortunately, at my high school, I felt as though many students joined simply to get brownie points on their college applications. Sure, it’s great to be helping others – but only to boost your shot at getting into a selective school? I don’t know. Something about that rubbed me the wrong way. But I guess in the process they helped others – and that’s what really counts.

In addition to Key Club, our school had other service opportunities through other after school clubs. An old friend of mine asked me to do a talent show act with him to benefit the Friends of Kids with Cancer. He is a survivor of bone cancer and I have always admired his strength – not only for soldiering through invasive treatment, but for holding his head up as he weathers continued challenges and the sorrow of outliving many friends who did not make it through their illnesses. I had a blast doing our own version of the famous Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” comedy routine. I’m pretty sure we butchered the script, but it’s still a great memory I have.

My senior year, I took part in a Community Service class. Every day of the week had a different service assignment – one day we would visit nursing home residents, the next day we’d go to a neighboring elementary school to mentor at-risk students. Plus, you got to leave school for lunch and it was an easy A. I guess I’m guilty of signing up for service and banking on some of the benefits.

In December of my senior year, a boy who graduated the year before suddenly passed away from complications of a rare blood disease. Prior to falling ill his senior year, he was a hockey player and good friend to many students. He had two younger siblings at the high school as well. His sister was in my community service class and we decided to create a special event in honor of the student and an organization that makes a difference in the lives of many seriously ill kids in our community. We organized an event called “Dream Big: 5K for the Factory.”

The 5K walk/run raised tens of thousands of dollars the first year and will be celebrating it’s 4th anniversary on April 20th, 2008. The beneficiary of the fundraiser, the Dream Factory of St. Louis, has helped hundreds of extraordinary children live out their dreams. My friend, a sports fanatic, went to the Super Bowl. The Dream Factory takes kids to Disney World, to Hawaii and even donates horse trailers!

I chose to attend college at Saint Louis University, not even realizing that it was a Jesuit, Catholic university dedicated to service. I soon found out that service was an integral part of the university’s mission. In fact, SLU’s motto is “Men and women for others.” After three years as a campus tour guide – I got pretty good at explaining the motto and why universities founded on service to others truly make for an exceptional learning experience.

At SLU, there were so many opportunities to give back to the community. My freshman year I tutored students in the America Reads program and the Freshman day of service. Many of my friends participated in Campus Kitchen, APO and Relay for Life. Through the Public Relations club, we donated our services to charities like the Dream Factory and the Make-A-Wish foundation. Some of my friends even donated their spring break to go on service trips. I still feel like I didn’t get as involved as I should have while at school – I always feared that if I did too much I would take away from time for work and school. Looking back, I watched too much TV, spent way too much time on Facebook and didn’t give back enough.

After graduation, those feelings of regret really started to settle in. I realized how blessed (and lazy) I am. When I was on an informational interview with Drake & Co., I met a young professional who recommended that I get involved with United Way of Greater St. Louis’s GenNext program. She said it was a great way to network and meet other young people in St. Louis that are starting careers and looking for ways to give back to the community. Again, guilty of signing up for service in part for my own benefit, I registered to help out at a Head Start campus.

Not only did I learn more about an organization providing exceptional educational opportunities for low-income children – I also met a network of young people dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. They are graduate students and professionals in a variety of fields, who have a great time helping others. Although I am still trying to get more involved with the organization (I just signed up to be on a grant panel!), I am excited to spend more time with such altruistic people. I enjoy helping others and meeting new friends who share those interests.

And, hey, it doesn’t hurt to mention that I met my now employer at a Make-A-Wish foundation, does it?

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