Lessons I've Learned from Service

The tutoring center is a small room in what seems to be an old doctor’s office that was created as part of a community engagement effort by the Housing Authority. At first, I was really weirded out by the place. It was super close to SLU in a really interesting and historically significant area. But the small, single-room tutoring center was extremely different than any other place I had tutored before. It also took a lot of time to realize just how much I needed to work on my patience. The kids we worked with were a little rowdy and a handful of them just don’t like to listen. It took a couple weeks before I taught myself to realize that they had been inside all day at school and simply had a lot of pent-up energy. I learned that they are all so incredibly smart in their own ways, with their own unique and widely varying learning styles. Whether that’s reading a book to me in goofy southern accents or something as simple and standing up rather than sitting down, I just have to adapt depending on the kid I work with.

 

My favorite example of this comes from one of the sixth-grade students named Riley*. She acts like any other 13-year-old girl and is brilliant when you can capture her attention. One day, because she and her friend had no homework to do, we started reading a chapter of a short book. That didn’t last long because they lost interest and began to distract other students. There was another student that needed my help, so one of the instructors suggested that the two girls “make something.” She gave them tons of art supplies: construction paper, magazines, washi tape, markers, etcetera. They were immediately silent in starting their arts and crafts. At the end of the tutoring period, Riley came around giving each of the tutors a blank greeting card that they told us to “give to our boyfriends or something.” They even gave themselves a company name and a tagline they wrote on each of the cards. It was interesting and kinda funny to see how focused they were when given the opportunity to use creative skills over critical thinking for even a brief period of time. Through this, they made something they were proud of, and I learned something valuable.

 

Other than some specific instances of learning from the kids I work with, I have gained an understanding of how important service is in general. In high school, most of my volunteer work was meaningless, working once with a particular organization selling raffle tickets or spending a day cleaning up the baseball diamond at an elementary school shaped my understanding of my community in approximately zero ways. I was sort of engaged with my community, but not those in it and not for a sustained amount of time. Working with the same organization for an entire semester, I have gotten to know the kids and their individual interests and learning styles. Seeing how the kids interact with some of the tutors from SLU who have been there for multiple years is also so inspiring. The whole point of service, in my opinion, is to build those community relationships (over time) while also being open to learning about the community itself.

One final lesson I have learned from doing weekly service is that I am receiving rather than giving. I am not a saint for participating in community service. I am not “saving” anyone or “fixing” any problems in my city. However, I am pushing myself to be more perceptive to the problems in my community, while also learning a lot about individuals and their unique experiences in it. At the same time that the kids are building a relationship with me, I am building a relationship with them.

*Names changed for privacy reasons