“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi was a man of wise words, and incredible spirit, that chose to serve the world in large and small ways. Growing up I didn’t fully understand this spirit of service. I would donate my clothes to Goodwill every year, I gave money to the Santa Claus for Salvation Army, and my family always taught me to be kind and generous to those in need, but it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I really understood what community service meant.
At 12 years old I volunteered to clean up an abandoned lot so that my middle school could create a public community garden. I met with the group at dawn so that we could finish the cleaning session before school started. As I got there I was already regretting my decision to leave my warm bed, but I trudged on. Slowly and sluggishly we started to pick up pieces of trash and throw away the thorny weeds until it was time to leave for school. By the end of the short volunteer time, the garden was by no means beautiful. There were small clumps of flowers and plants that needed time to grow, and it still needed a lot of work. I looked at the little sprouts as they reached their hands up to the sun, desperate to bring color to the dreary streets in downtown and thought of what it would look like overtime. My heart filled with that immeasurable feeling of hope and peace that comes from putting your energy into something for others, and I was proud of myself for working so hard. After a couple days, I didn’t think much of the lot, it was just a community service project that I did and would do again in the future in some way or another.
About a week later I walked back to that garden with some friends after school and saw an elderly woman with a small child. The pair was dirty and disheveled and appeared to have fallen on hard times, but I didn’t think much of it; it was a normal sight in this part of town. As I continued to walk through with my friends, gossiping about whatever drama had gone down in 7th grade, I paused a moment and watched as the elderly woman pointed to a flower, smiled lovingly and told the little boy what it was called. He looked at it in amazement, astounded by the small beauty, picked it, and presented it to the woman at his side. Tears came to her eyes and she clutched the boy to her chest showering him with love. Then the pair walked away, holding bags of belongings, heading seemingly nowhere, with torn shoes, and the tiny budding flower.
It was at this point that I realized what community service was. It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about that kind feeling in your heart that bursts when you do something good, it wasn’t about me waking up early to do something I thought I should, and it wasn’t about the garden, it was so much more. For years, I had performed community service because it was the right thing to do, or because I felt good when I did, but it wasn’t about me at all, it was about giving back to a community, a stranger even, and brightening their day in the smallest way possible.
Over the years, I’ve organized mass groups of people and raised thousands of dollars to give back to the homeless, fight against cancer, and buy gifts for underprivileged families. I’ve volunteered at homes for the developmentally disabled, heard the stories of survivors of human trafficking, and organized advocacy rallies for sexual assault survivors. Why then did I tell you about this small garden that I helped clean at the dismissible age of 12? Because to me, community service isn’t about how much I can do, how big the issue, or how much I can change, it’s about remembering the light in that little boy’s eyes as he saw beauty in a world of hurt and pain.
Mahatma Gandhi is a legend for his service to others, but the man of great actions was known for his small ones as well. Community service is not always glamorous, there’s not always a lot to show for the work you’ve done, and there’s not always a great ripple effect. To me, community service is doing whatever you can, whenever you can to help others and bring light into their day.
I’m now living in Europe and am witness to an entirely new spectrum of community. The refugee crisis is incredibly close physically as well as on the minds of all those around me, and I’m more recently opening my eyes to a host of human tragedies all across the world. In this sense, the community in community service takes on an entirely new meaning, and it seems impossible to participate. But at times like these I hold onto the light in that small boy’s eyes.
Whether I’m organizing yearlong events to fight against cancer, or donating a small amount of money to help refugees on the shores of Greece, I’ll forever hold onto the power that comes from giving back. In a world filled with darkness it’s easy to feel helpless, we can’t all be Gandhi after all. But if we all hold onto the idea that community service comes in all shapes and sizes — and isn’t always a grand show of hard work — it may result in beautiful, unexpected endings.
Elaina Provencio, Miss California State 2015
Elaina is a journalism student at UC Berkley and is currently expanding her horizons through a study abroad program in London. She has been a staff news reporter for The Daily Californian, and a board member and team captain for UC Berkeley’s Relay for Life/Colleges against Cancer Club — her leadership with the Relay for Life has been instrumental in events that have raised more than $25,000 for the American Cancer Society.