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Thinking Outside of the Box to Engage Individuals in Community Service

Sarah DeGrandpre, Washington, D.C. Program Director at Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP), explains why serving her community is so important, and challenges others to ask themselves what community service means and how they can give back to their communities.

Sarah DeGrandpreI have always been inspired by leaders of our great nation and thus I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change. Upon reflecting about what service means to me for this event, I began to realize that service has struck my life in a multitude of ways. Community service is one of the most powerful tools we have because the resources one can provide their fellow human are infinite.

The ways in which we participate in community service must transcend the traditional forms of how we serve others. Soup kitchens and food banks are incredibly important to providing emergency services to people in need and could not operate without the support of volunteers. However, we also must highlight other forms of service that play an integral role in overcoming the reasons people resort to emergency resources. Mentoring or speaking to at-risk youth, providing IT support to non-profits, and educating ourselves about why challenges like food insecurity and social injustice exist are examples of uncomplicated approaches that support our communities. Encouraging a proactive, outside the box approach to service is critical to aiding communities in need, and in turn, combating many of the challenges our nation faces today.

My own story of service began in January 2007, when I traveled with a group of 11 people from St. Michael’s College to New Orleans to assist in the post-Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. At the onset of the trip, I was excited for the opportunity to travel to a new part of the country to do community service, but completely unaware of the impact this weeklong service trip would have on my life. During the week I served in New Orleans, I worked alongside others to clean the homes of two elderly people who had relocated after the storm. I was left with a daunting visual of the challenges our nation faces, but also met with a new found energy and interest in service.  

In conjunction with my trip to New Orleans, I created an organization called Fix It With Five. The mission of Fix It With Five is simple: employ college students to donate $5 from their college tuition to fund initiatives in their community, chosen by the students. In addition to donating $5 - the cost for an average latte or late night pizza - students can donate 5 hours of their time and 5 ideas to local organizations. Given that college students are arguably some of the most fortunate people in the world, engaging this population provides a tremendous resource for local communities and inspires students to maintain a lifelong career of giving back. This initiative promotes the notion that through innovative modes of thinking, we can connect an expansive range of communities, and encourage new ways of doing service.

AmeriCorps is another excellent example of the power of service to communities across the US. The service-oriented program is federally funded, administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.  AmeriCorps members serve in a multitude of capacities at community agencies throughout the country. In July 2008, I was hired as the AmeriCorps Fellow at  the Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP) in Washington, D.C. Similar to AmeriCorps, YSOP was founded on the notion that young people can make a difference in their communities through participating in service. For many non-profits, like YSOP, AmeriCorps members provide vital resources that promote and sustain growth in their communities. The benefits of AmeriCorps programs are tremendous because they support rural and urban communities and provide important job skills for people from a wide-range of backgrounds.  When I speak about what community service means to me, I am proud to share my experience as an AmeriCorps member because it afforded me vast opportunities and shaped my understanding of the importance of the service sector.

Whether you’re considering short-term volunteer service or a lifelong career, challenge yourself to consider what talents you posses when seeking opportunities to give back to your community. Ask yourself, what does community service mean to me? After all, service should be about providing what you can do for others, and what better way to become involved than to give what you’re most passionate about. For me, that passion is service.

Sarah DeGrandpre is the Washington, D.C. Program Director at Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP), a non-profit dedicated to providing youth and young adults from around the country with comprehensive service-learning experiences in D.C. and New York City.