Fifteen years ago I had the great pleasure of leading a team of idealistic young AmeriCorps members in San Luis Obispo, California. We taught environmental education to middle and high school students, mostly through service projects, in-class presentations, and after-school clubs.
Whenever we lost our way — which was often because we worked with TEENAGERS! — one of the members would remind us why we were there: for the kids.
While that was true for me, what was more true is I was there for the AmeriCorps members themselves. Watching them grow and mature, navigating conflict, finding humor in something a kid said to them, crying over a lost cause case, fulfilled me like you wouldn’t believe. I’m proud of the amazing people they’ve become, some parents, some teachers, some both. They are my role models now.
Before we started our year together, we had a formal swearing-in ceremony for my group and about 70 other AmeriCorps members from our community. I’d like to share the speech I gave then, because all these years later it still resonates with me. And I hope it inspires you as well, in whatever way you’ve chosen to serve your community.
Why Are You Here?
WHY are you here?
Are you here because of your altruistic nature? Your deep desire to change children’s lives? Or your dream to save the environment?
Why are you HERE?
To build up your resume? To gain valuable work experience? Or to pay off school debt?
If I weren’t posing this question rhetorically, I bet the majority of you would list at least one of the aforementioned reasons for why you’re here. But I ask you to look deeper.
Why are YOU here?
This year you’ve agreed to work for minimum wage and do without a few comforts you might be used to. You’ve agreed to work most weekends and some evenings. You’ve agreed to work with bureaucracies that might make you consider anarchy. You’ve agreed to work with kids whose lives may make you feel terribly sad or even angry.
I dare you, no, I DOUBLE dare you to ponder the possibility that you’re here to learn about yourself, to confront your greatest fears, to embrace your special talents, to toughen your idealism and to soften your ego.
By committing to serve our community’s youth for a year, you are really making a commitment to yourself.
So please don’t take that commitment lightly. And at the same time, please don’t take yourself too seriously! Sing at the top of your lungs while riding your bike through town! Laugh at yourself when you accidentally trip on nothing! Get outside and get some fresh air and sunshine! Hike a peak in moonlight or swim naked in the ocean. Spend time with yourself, your friends and your family. I say, put on your fancy pants and DANCE!
Fun—having fun—may help you balance out those particularly challenging days. Those days when you ask yourself, “Why the hell AM I here?”
So enjoy yourself and take some time to rejuvenate, for a burned out AmeriCorps member is like a burned out light bulb—you can’t illuminate the darkness for anyone, least of all yourself.
And so that is what I wish for you today. I wish that this year brings you a balance of gut-wrenching soul searching, some fun times, and most importantly, a renewed sense of faith in humanity and in yourself.
For that is why I believe you are here. Good luck this coming year.