University of Delaware

Helpful or Harmful? How to Make Your Service Count

Nine college students standing against a wall with the message "Together we can solve hunger" printed on it.

Me and members of my team participating in a University of Delaware Alternative Breaks experience in Spring 2016 at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C.

“Service” was equivalent to “helping” in my mind for a long time. I have since considered more carefully whether a task labeled as “service” was truly helpful after listening to an informative podcast on altruism this past summer. The podcast introduced what was called the “Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study” commissioned by Richard Cabot in 1936. Through this study, the long-term analysis of a mentoring program for at-risk youth found that the mentoring program actually ended up hurting the people they were trying to mentor.

So why did mentoring these individuals impact their lives in negative ways? There is no single correct answer to that question thus far, but it should start you thinking about whether a particular service such as mentoring is truly beneficial to the community. There are a couple of methods I have found to avoid this conundrum of harmful service:

ASK.

That may seem obvious, but making service meaningful can be as simple as asking a service organization what they truly need. For example, Thanksgiving inspires many people to volunteer at soup kitchens or food banks. Unfortunately, large influxes of volunteers can be overwhelming for these organizations, and the act of organizing volunteers or finding tasks to complete might be detrimental to the actual act of serving food to those in need. The solution? Ask. Maybe they want you to volunteer during other times of the year when the organization is in short supply of volunteers, or maybe they want you to donate food if they are in short supply. Make your time volunteering for a service organization count by asking them what they need before you become involved. In most cases, an organization will know more about a particular issue than you do.

LEARN MORE.

Try to engage more deeply with an issue area instead of skimming the surface. Think about the actual impact of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Having the opportunity to get involved in an alternative spring break experience last year, I found that the most valuable component was the knowledge that I gained in regards to urban poverty and hunger from the Steinbruck Center in Washington, D.C. I can now better identify structural racism among other injustices, and I feel more confident in helping those affected by homelessness in a more competent manner. Dom, a volunteer who served as a barber at one of the charitable organizations we visited in DC, gave us advice along the lines of “you have to be two feet in or two feet out; there’s no halfway to helping others,” and that has seemed to hold true in my experiences. Read more about an issue area, talk to people already engaged in the issue, and try to become more involved with a single issue. Finding a passion for a particular service and delving into that is ideal for developing a fuller understanding of an issue. You may find that the particular acts of service you performed are not as helpful as you previously thought, but now you are better suited to address that issue in the community.

START SMALL.

Rotary International? That organization started in downtown Chicago in the year 1905 by Paul Harris and three business acquaintances. It grew to a national organization by 1910, and became international a little over a decade later.

Now, other examples of grassroots organizations making a difference in their community are almost inherently not world-renown, but that does not take away from their meaningful impact. You may not have heard of nonprofit organizations in our area such as Conscious Connections Inc. or the Newark Empowerment Center, yet they are making a difference in the communities that they serve. In fact, engaging on a local level is arguably the best way to understand a community’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs in the midst of a globalizing world. Being involved in Engineers without Borders, I see that our organization is particular about calling our efforts a “partnership” with the community in need. We work closely with the community and find a solution that fits their needs; there is no one-size-fits-all. Trying to make broad generalizations or attempting to find a single solution to a widespread issue can be detrimental.

Service is not always a simple task; it takes critical thinking and a conscious effort. Good intentions may not always translate into positive outcomes. That being said, service can be extremely rewarding for everyone: activists, volunteers, organizations, those in need, the environment, and so on. The key is to actively think and be thoughtful in your actions when engaging in service.


By George Wieber, a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Sykesville, Md. In addition to serving as a Community Engagement Ambassador, George is also involved with the UD Chapter of Engineers without Borders and the Honors Program.