I can’t remember the first time I heard the term “community service,” but it wasn’t until the 10th grade that I finally understood what the word meant. I had just moved to the United States from Jamaica and once enrolled in high school, I got involved with the National Honor Society and an after-school club called Building with Books.
Both organizations required students to volunteer and over the next three years, I logged hundreds of volunteer hours after school and on weekends, serving meals in soup kitchens, planting community gardens, writing letters to kids in Uganda and eventually, flying to Nicaragua with a group of other students from the tri-state area to build a school.
The two weeks I spent lugging concrete blocks across a worksite or mixing cement was perhaps one of the most formative periods in my life.
Seeing another part of the world where no one spoke my language inspired my love of travel, but at the same time, the similarities between Nicaragua and my home country taught me to find commonalities with others. Watching the new school go up next to the old one-room building where all the village’s children took their lessons crammed next to each other taught me about transformation, possibility and the power of a few committed people to make big change.
This is me in 2007 with one of the kids from the village where we erected the new school.
Before these experiences, I’d had a vague image of men in orange suits picking up trash on the corner of the road whenever I heard the term community service. It’s not that I hadn’t given to others before, but I’d never made it a priority or thought much about it.
When I started to make giving a habit, my perspective changed and I was much more empathetic to others and appreciative of what I had.
I’m keenly aware that I owe much of my success to the generosity of others – like the donors who made it possible for me to go to college on a full scholarship or the teachers and mentors who saw my potential and believed that I could go further than even I could imagine.
With this in mind, I’ve been more and more convinced lately that I need to make philanthropy and service priorities in my life – and not just after I’ve “made it”, but starting now when giving back might not feel as effortless.
Enter #GivingTuesday: a day dedicated to being selfless. It started only four years ago, but has quickly become a global phenomenon for its direct contrast to the excess that often marks the days between Thanksgiving (with it’s oversized portions and food-induced comas) and Cyber Monday (which has now turned into Cyber Week to encourage all of us to gorge ourselves on things, things and more things.)
Today, December 1, 2015, tons of charities will take to social media to try to get people to care. As someone who works at a nonprofit, I know firsthand the kind of impact the money and awareness raised can have.
It’s made me realize how much more of a responsibility I have to do what I can. Sometimes, when you can only give in small amounts, it’s easy to feel like your contribution won’t make a difference. And in turn, it’s easy to not do anything.
We see big names like Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg giving large amounts of their money to charity, and it seems like the obvious choice because they have so much more than the rest of us. But more often than not, we don’t extend the same sense of obligation to ourselves.
The best part about campaigns like #GivingTuesday is that anyone can get involved. Everyone can make a gift, no matter the size. Because it’s less about whether you give a dollar or a thousand, and more about every person doing as much as they can – and the collective impact than can have.
Even better, there are many ways you can give back besides money. Here are 4 simple ways to make a difference today:
- Make a gift, no matter the size.
- Volunteer for a nonprofit organization.
- Donate your services pro-bono.
- Learn more about a cause. Here are the four I’ll be supporting this year:
- The ALS Association, which funds research into new treatments and provides resources for patients and their families living with ALS. My hope is that their research will save lives and one day prevent anyone else from ever going through what my dad experienced.
- BuildOn (formerly Building with Books), which runs youth service after-school programs in underserved high schools in the United States and builds schools in developing countries. Their work has broadened the horizon and potential of so many kids, including myself.
- ExpandED Schools, which is dedicated to increasing access to enriched education experiences and works to close the 6,000 learning gap for kids in low-income communities.
- My alma mater, Baruch College — because it’s my duty to pay it forward.
MY CHALLENGE TO YOU: Feel free to start with one of these or find your own cause that you are passionate about. There are more than 1.5 million charitable organizations registered in the United States alone, so there’s definitely something for everyone.