Saturday, March 13, 2010

I Hate Community Service

I wended my way back to the local clothing closet today, to spend a few more hours sorting and prepping clothing for folks in need in and around the county where my church is located. It was a rather sparse day for the center, as it was pouring rain...hardly the sort of weather that brings out folks who are struggling financially.

It was a good time to get stuff done, and I got into a crankin' groove, racking jumpers and pants and sweaters in a functional voluntaristic Tai Chi. After sorting and hanging several racks full of clothes, one of the clients who was just sorta hanging around watching me work decided it might be less boring if she helped out. "You're working all by yourself, honey? They've left you all alone? Lemme help out!"

She was a youngish African American woman with a big swatch of blue died into her hair, and she and I passed a few genial moments. She'd worked up until about six months ago, until she got sick and couldn't work. She didn't have kids, but loved 'em. As we sorted through little donated jackets and tiny skirts and dresses, she cooed and laughed, and called over to a very young Latina with a toddler on her hip whenever something struck her as particularly cute. "Hey, Chica! OOOOH!" She dangled a little skirt just the right size for the little girl. "Es muy bonita!" She was helping out. Making someone's day. Feeling useful. "I like this," she announced to everyone and anyone. "I'm going to do this again."

As I vacuumed up the place after closing time, there was a little cluster of local teens hovering around the center manager. They'd been there the whole time, and been working more-or-less diligently. Now, though, it was time for them to get paid. Meaning, they were getting the community service hours mandated by the county school system. "I've been here since eleven-thirty," one said. I should get three and a half hours." The manager seemed skeptical. Negotiations ensued. Forms were filled out. More negotiations ensued.

I've always disliked the community service requirement that seems to have spread throughout the school systems in my area since I graduated from high school. The idea, of course, is that requiring community service of all students as a prerequisite for graduation will teach the value of voluntarism. In order to graduate from high school in the county, you need 60 hours of service this year...which will be upped to 75 hours of service in 2011.

While this is certainly well-meaning, it's always struck me as a bit off. Why? Well, to start with, mandated voluntarism is an oxymoron. If you're being forced to serve, it ain't volunteering. It also doesn't seem to reflect the why of a service ethic. It can't be about racking up the hours. The act itself is the benefit. You serve because you're moved by the value of service. It's something you do out of the desire to help, for the simple joy of being a part of something that you recognize as valuable.

At some point, someone has to introduce you to it, true. My parents were the ones who nudged me into service ministry at my home church, and I was quickly hooked. In a world full of meaningless self-seeking and back-biting, here was something real, entered into without coercion, for the simple pleasure of serving another.

But the moment you make it a mandate, the moment you impose upon it coercion or the dynamics of a paid transaction, you've abandoned the ethic that calls people to volunteer. What this teaches, I fear, is that the reason to volunteer has everything to do with requirements and obligations and mandates. That approach may get teens into the shelters and clothing closets and food pantries. What it would seem less likely to do is get the adults that they become to choose to participate in the organizations that are the heart of our communities and the hope of those in need.