University of Delaware

Service Starts with One Small Step

Sometimes, We Think Too Big

Too often in the realm of community service we think too big. We want to feed the hungry, cure the sick, shelter the homeless and fix the environment. These are admirable goals, and the inherent nobility of pursuing them is undeniably an important factor in what drives us to serve our community. But I have found that all too often the pursuit of these broad ideals causes pure-hearted public servants to fall short of their goals or become disillusioned and jaded by the obstacles that stand in their way. It can be easy to forget that incremental progress is key to achieving these goals.

It Starts Out Small

There can be no better example of this than the experience I had on my University of Delaware Alternative Breaks (UDaB) trip this past spring. We were volunteering with the Pittsburgh Project, an organization that fixes homes for people who are less fortunate, elderly and/or disabled who cannot maintain their homes themselves. I had been so excited to get to renovate an entire home so that a family less fortunate than I could have a nicer place to live.

Caleb, Lauren, Cassie, Marissa, Mike and Ray (some of my favorite humans) in front of the TPP supply warehouse after a long day’s work.

(Left to right) Caleb, Lauren, Cassie, Marissa, Mike and Ray (some of my favorite humans) in front of the TPP supply warehouse after a long day’s work.

Our homeowner Mrs. McCree had been living on her own for years. Her husband had passed away some time ago, and her son and his family had moved to California. Her home had fallen into disarray. When we arrived to begin working, we could barely even enter her house. She had been hoarding and saving mementos from her family for a very long time. The only room that had any space whatsoever was the front living room, a tiny space in which she had been sleeping on the couch each night.

A pink bedroom with a pile of items in the middle covered in a tarp. A student tries to navigate through the crowded room.

Mrs. McCree’s bedroom when we first arrived.

At first glance, I could tell that my work group was disappointed. Other groups were renovating entire rooms and we couldn’t even reach the problem areas of her house to fix them. We had no idea where to start, and we weren’t even sure if there was anything we could do given the amount of time we had. But, we figured that if we could at least clean up a bit and make it so this woman could walk around her house easier, that would be something. So we started our work.

A college student works slowly to clear items from a cluttered dining room table, with piles of bags, boxes, and chairs around her.

My friend Quinn working on Mrs. McCree’s dining room

As we were cleaning, I noticed that almost every doorknob in the house was broken or falling apart. So I went to the warehouse, got some doorknobs, and said to myself “well, at least it’s one small thing I can do.” Two of the members of the group realized that one of the rooms they were cleaning out was a bedroom, so they thought “let’s try to get this bed uncovered, that’s something small we can accomplish.” Two more found the dining room, and began to clear out a space so we could all eat lunch together.

A clean bed with fresh linens stands out in a room surrounded by piles of kept items.

Mrs. McCree’s bedroom after we finished cleaning.

It went on like that for a week. We would try to find small things we could do to make her life easier. We cleared out a mess by the stove so she could cook more easily. We put new locks on her front door so she could feel safer. We talked with her and listened to her tell stories about her life to help ease her loneliness. We bought her new linens and cleaned up the sleeping area in her bedroom. We spackled and painted the ceiling so it wouldn’t leak as much. We tried to do as much as we could and kept thinking of ways we could make the most our time.

Seven college students sit around the table with big smiles.

Me and my group members, (from left to right) Shreena, Emily, Quinn, Nick, Eric and Claire eating at Mrs. McCree’s dining room table (a table that hadn’t been usable in four years) on our last day.

When we finished working on the last day, the house was nowhere near perfect. There were many problems that still needed to be fixed. But when we stepped back and looked closely, we had discovered that we had made a significant difference in this woman’s life. For the first time in two years, Mrs. McCree was sleeping in her own bedroom, in her own bed! For the first time in four years, she was cooking in her kitchen and eating at her dining room table! It may not have seemed like much, but we had done as much as we could to help her breathe a bit easier, and she was very grateful to us for that.

The Lesson

Never think that you aren’t capable of affecting a positive change in the world, because I can guarantee you that you are.

For those of us who have chosen to spend our time helping others and improving the community, the problems we face can seem daunting. Very often, we have little time and resources to work with, and the end goal can seem impossibly out of reach. However, we cannot allow this to deter us. This experience taught me that progress, in life and in service, starts out small. One good deed is all it takes to get the ball rolling. Through incremental steps we can achieve something incredible.

My time with Mrs. McCree also taught me that no matter how small you may think your contribution is, it’s worth it if you are able to help even a single person. I had at first thought that what I was doing for this woman was almost insignificant, but by the time me and my friends were done, we had changed her life in a positive way. Never think that you aren’t capable of affecting a positive change in the world, because I can guarantee you that you are.

Eight students stacked on a narrow front stoop in front of a white brick house.

My work group and Mrs. McCree on her front stoop on our last day with her.


Article by Joshua Greenberg. Joshua is a senior electrical engineering major and computer science minor from Merrick, N.Y. In addition to being a Community Engagement Ambassador, he is involved with Project Sunshine and Lambda Chi Alpha.