Guest Post by Leilani Reyes

When you’re growing up, two of the most difficult things to secure are community and purpose. Both of those things can be found through volunteering with causes and organizations you care about. Community service can be a great way to test the waters for future career paths, find your people, and develop a deeper understanding of the world around you. I started volunteering with nonprofits when I was in high school and continued to do so throughout college, and found it a great way to get out of the stressful academic world and into the real one. 

Despite the many benefits one can gain from service, the main thing to remember is that it isn’t about you. The motto of my college service group was “service with and for others,” and it was a constant reminder that when you go to your service placement, you must set all your own needs aside to address the needs of others. We went in small groups to homeless shelters, schools, after school programs, halfway houses, and more. Each one offered a unique means of contributing to a cause and connecting with people from all backgrounds. 

I’ve had some very eye opening experiences doing service, such as the many times I explained to children at an after school program that boys and girls can dress however they want and don’t have to look like the people they see on TV and in magazines, watching their minds be blown at the simple realization. I volunteered covering the front desk at an LGBT center and heard the stories of people struggling for their lives because of the inadequacies of current health and legal systems. I met children who had been displaced from their homes because of domestic violence and found them to be full of talent, kindness, and great insight. Many times my assumptions about people were proven wrong, or my eyes opened to harsh realities. 

Once your eyes have been opened, volunteering shouldn’t be the limit to your efforts to help those you serve. True service needs to go beyond the hours that you dedicate at an organization and be further examined if actual meaningful change is to be achieved. Every individual person you meet and serve is a piece of the greater puzzle of complex systemic issues. Their individual need is created by social, political, and economic influences that work together and overlap to cause the need for them and many others. Addressing their one need does not solve the greater problem, but that does not mean that there is no value in service either. 

As long as the service committed does not interfere with existing community support, maintains meaningful relationships, and cultivates critical thought, it can be incredibly beneficial to all parties. Service can also be the first important step towards greater battles like activism or political involvement. Once you realize the needs on a smaller scale, you have the fuel needed to interrogate the root causes of those needs and get involved in the fight for change, equipped with your knowledge gained through service. 

For young people, community service can be more than an obligatory time commitment or resume builder. It is a means of forming valuable relationships, cultivating empathy, and acts as a great introduction to more radical thinking and actions that challenge systems of oppression in the United States. There are opportunities for service in your community, and right at home is the best place to start. Find a cause you care about, research places to bring that passion, and start your journey from there. If you go into it with an open heart and attentive eye, you won’t regret it.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Leilani! I am a Long Beach, CA native who grew up with a passion for art and writing and learning more about the world. I’ve spent years doing community service, working on my craft, and now am wandering in search of my next life adventure.