Dozens and dozens of us provided service to others over spring break. The motivations for travel and service are as varied as the roster of those on the trips, but we know, from reading the applications of those who apply, that some variation on “making the world better through direct service” is on the list for many. Usually, we expect to be able recognize the improvement that we’ve made. It’s one of the ways in which we measure our success in bringing service.
I’ve just returned from a week of service with eight students and a colleague. We spent the week working with tornado clean up in Washington, Illinois. It was hard and frequently satisfying work, but there were days that tried our commitment and required us to find what motivation we could in the idea of being in service for the sake of service itself and not for the sense of accomplishment that it provided. There was the day we spent picking up nails and small pieces of glass from the lawn surrounding a rebuilt house that was nearing completion, or the two afternoons we were assigned to work on a pile of building debris that had been illegally dumped in someone's yard. We worked and complained and had analytical conversations about the best ways to work and then worked some more.
All the while, we were surrounded by others doing their work: the staff at the volunteer center coordinating the projects, the cooks and servers at the restaurants where we ate our lunches, the ubiquitous construction crews, working to rebuild what had been destroyed, the state police officer (who turned out to be a Valpo dad) who stopped on his patrol to thank us for our work and share his stories of the day of the tornado. Then there were all of the people who were just about the regular business of being a regular community in an irregular time. Life goes on.
No doubt there are many, who we never met, who are busy asking and answering questions about how to do the work of rebuilding and what to learn from such a disaster.
We finished a handful of projects and felt good about them. One backyard is nearly suitable for children to play in it; another basement lies waiting for a new house to be built up on it. The work we did are small pieces of a huge project that will continue for years. We were able to serve for one week and I think we're okay with that. Not satisfied, but okay.