Bees hummed in the purple flowers of the sage, growing wild at the edge of the garden. From the sandy Colorado soil, rows of lettuce and peppers, frilly carrot stalks, and hardy tomato plants bloomed. Shading her eyes against the bright morning sun, Denise Wanzo extended an arm wide. “This is my service. When I ask, Lord how do I move forward another day, He just says, ‘work the garden.’ So I do.”
The fruits of this garden, tended by Denise and other members of the United Church of Montbello, go to the Montbello Cooperative Ministries Food Bank. The tiny food bank serves over 1,000 individuals each month with donations, government commodities, and, when the harvest comes in, fresh tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and zucchini.
Standing in a circle, listening to Denise describe the garden, are more than a dozen graduate students, nearly all of them employed in the nonprofit sector. They are fundraisers, administrative assistants, mental health workers, program managers. A few are looking for their first nonprofit job. Together, they are taking part in a “service-oriented field experience” through Regis University.
For eight days in July, these students from Regis’ Masters in Nonprofit Management Program visited different parts of the Metro Denver community, even spending a night in the mountains in Leadville, meeting with people who were helping to integrate new immigrants into the community. You can read more about their experience on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/DenverSOFE.
For most of these students, the field experience took them far from their day-to-day work. After the morning the garden with Denise, they attended a gospel worship service led by Reverend James Fouther, then they spent time talking with his wife Angelle Collins Fouther and volunteers from the food bank, experiencing firsthand the connection between faith and service. Later, they heard from Kathy Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado (http://www.hungerfreecolorado.org/) about the systemic issues underlying hunger in our abundant country. Finally, they formed “family groups” and cooked dinner using staples similar to those families receive from the food bank.
In reading the reflections on Facebook, the students were profoundly influenced by their experiences. “Each visit was an addition of knowledge and reminder of the dedication it takes to make a social change, together.” “Over the last year, I have talked about ideas I have for creating change in the community but I have never followed through with these ideas. After meeting all of these wonderful individuals, I see that there is no ‘good’ time to start with one of these ideas but that I just need to ‘do’ these ideas.”
Many of us who work in the nonprofit sector spend our time in management and administrative tasks. In service to our missions, we make phone calls and send e-mails, prepare presentations, compose fundraising letter, manage staff. Though our ultimate goal may be to make sure more homeless people have shelter and more children can read, the way we spend our days often resembles any corporate white-collar job.
After seeing how the field experiences changed the students in the Regis program, I am recommitted to making sure that field experiences are a part of my life. While I have a perfectly nice office and access to dozens of stories and videos on the internet from all around the world, there is nothing like standing in a community garden and hearing from a leader like Denise Wanzo about her service. There is nothing that fires your commitment to social change like mopping the floors after serving meals to a few hundred homeless people, knowing that they have to go out into the heat and I get to come back into the air conditioning.
Fortunately, service opportunities abound in our sector. Does your organization have time for shared volunteer activities? Or do you have a segment of your organization that provides direct service, which could cycle in staff from other departments as volunteers on a regular basis? Many communities have volunteer matching programs through groups like Metro Volunteers…find yours and have them link you to the service opportunities.
Another option is to spend time out in the community you serve, just walking around and talking to clients, potential clients, and regular folks. If you spend most of your time with donors and other administrators, this can be an incredible wake-up call. Mike Green from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute helped the Regis group take such a walk around the Original Aurora community…identifying and mapping community assets in partnership with residents. It was a transformative experience.
Even though it feels as if I’m so busy I can’t possibly add one more thing to my list, I know that these experiences will energize me for the work ahead…essentially saving me time that I waste searching for inspiration. My inspiration will be in the experiences of service, in the eyes and hands and spirits of the people with whom I connect. I look forward to hearing about how you put service to work in your life.
When People Care Enough to Act
Image credit: vocalodyssey.com