Weeding. Don’t know what comes to mind when you hear that word, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t a good thing, so you might be surprised that out of all the activities I did during National AmeriCorps Week in Maine, weeding was my favorite. Ok, that isn’t totally true, but I struggle to call drinking beer at a SeaDogs baseball game a truly philanthropic act. “Why was weeding so great?”, you ask. Well, being out at Rippling Waters Farm in Steep Falls, Maine brought me right back to one of my earliest volunteer experiences.
You see, in high school, I was in one of those programs where I was (*gasp*) required to complete community service hours to graduate. A more common requirement these days, mandatory volunteering was a pretty rare thing back in my time. In order to knock off some of the 150 hours needed, my best friend and I chose to work at the local history museum as historic interpreters – this meant “living” in the late 1800’s on a farm in our hometown just outside of Denver, Colorado. We were expected to cook meals, do chores, and even play games from that era. I would walk around in the hottest dress ever and say “Good Day” to the visitors. I absolutely loved the garden – we’d weed it all day just so the two of us could sit around and gossip.
Not much had changed when I was down in the dirt last week for our service project – I got to know H., P., and J. (all current AmeriCorps members) as we cleared a row for some beet seedlings and chatted about life. And here, I found the true meaning of philanthropy (or philanthropia as wikipedia tells me): loving what it is to be human. I won’t go into the whole philosophy of it all, but for those of you unfamiliar with Alexis de Tocqueville, it is worth a little research. de Tocqueville argued that the voluntary spirit is part of what makes America great – that we can get things done without always relying on institutions like government or churches to do it. And, through our volunteer efforts we create a democratic civil society.
I don’t know if I really buy the idea that volunteerism is a uniquely American value. The Ayn Rand Society will tell you that the volunteer ethic is in direct conflict with the American ideal of individualism, as it promotes self-sacrifice. What I do know is that a day away from the office with dirt under my fingernails, making new friends and soaking up Vitamin D is one of the best reminders of what is so great about being human.