What, exactly, is service?

Watering Trees with SECDCLooking back on this year’s Pre-Service Training (PST), which ended yesterday, by the way, I can safely say that one of my favorite days was our day of service last Friday.  The Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) and Support Team spent the day working with two different nonprofits in Baltimore, Paul’s Place in Washington Village/Pigtown and Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC) in Highlandtown.  The mission of the SECDC, where I spent my day, is to promote healthy, dynamic and diverse communities in Southeast Baltimore.  The VMCs serving at SECDC helped promote this mission by picking up trash, watering and mulching trees along Eastern Avenue, and weeding tree pits in preparation for a tree planting along South Highland Avenue.  Their work will help increase the tree canopy and air quality in Highlandtown and reduce the amount of trash emptying into the Inner Harbor.

Mulching Trees at SECDCAfter much hard work in unusually hot weather, the VMCs enjoyed a delicious lunch courtesy of the Highlandtown Merchants’ Association and Mi Viejo Pueblito and then settled down to reflect on their day.  Using an activity adapted from the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Resource Center, I asked the VMCs to consider different activities (such as donating money to a nonprofit, joining the armed forces, or serving lunch at a homeless shelter), rank these activities based on their personal philosophy of service, and discuss their conclusions in small groups.  The results of these discussions would probably not surprise anyone who is familiar with community service, service learning, or volunteer management in general, but are worth stating just the same: the word “service” has a different meaning for each and every one of us.  To some, service means giving freely of one’s skills, time, and resources; to others, risking one’s life in the line of duty; to others still, any activity that benefits the community in which one serves.  To some, there is a difference between “service” and “volunteering,” yet to others, these two words are interchangeable.

Picking up Trash at SECDCThis point, that service means many things to many people, was brought home to the VMCs again and again as they discussed the reflection activity and their day of service in both small and large groups, and it is a good point for volunteer coordinators and nonprofits to remember as they engage volunteers and share their missions with the communities they serve.  Not everyone you encounter will see what you are doing as “service,” not because it is not, but rather because they define service differently than you.  So, how do you define service?  And how do you react when you encounter someone whose definition differs?  Do you embrace the differences of opinion and work toward a common understanding?  Or do you close the other person off and go your own way?  Think about it…


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