Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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From a Requirement to a Desire:
Why Service is Important

by Kaiti Shelton

From the Editor: This article is based on a speech Kaiti Shelton delivered to the Community Service Group at the 2013 NFB national convention in Orlando. Kaiti is a sophomore at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and she was awarded a 2013 NFB National Scholarship.

Kaiti Shelton reads Braille with a boy in the Ohio BELL Program.When I was in kindergarten, my mother enrolled me in Girl Scouts. For the next seven years I spent much of my free time camping, hiking, and working to earn badges with my friends. Along the way my troop also did small things to give back to the community in which we lived. I remember planting flower bulbs and pulling weeds outside my elementary school, helping to decorate the display case in the school commons area, and working at an event to benefit St. Jude's Research Hospital. The event, called the Mathathon, is similar to the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life.

Back then I didn't really understand why my friends and I were doing these things. As I handed out water bottles to runners at the Mathathon, a part of me couldn't help but wonder, "When is this thing going to be over so I can go play?" Even when I ran my two laps around the school's baseball field to complete my work in the Mathathon, I wondered when I could stop running; I was tired, hot, and thirsty. I knew that what I was doing was nice, and that it was good to help people, but I didn't understand the intrinsic value of service. Whenever I did something, I expected an award in acknowledgement of my actions.

That all changed when I joined my high school's Student Senate as an advisory representative. One of the requirements for maintaining membership in the Student Senate was the completion of fifteen hours of community service per semester. A lot of the activities Student Senate offered for members to earn service hours involved making the school look nice in some way. Major events included decorating the gym for dances and painting festive pictures and sayings on the cafeteria windows each month to celebrate holidays or special events.

While I probably could have participated in these activities to an extent, I didn't think I would be able to give back as much as I wanted to. I didn't want to sit in a corner idly waiting for something else to do while my classmates performed visual tasks. I realized that if I was truly going to give back, I would have to create opportunities for service that would align with my strengths and afford me a real chance to help to the best of my abilities.

My mother played a major role in helping me get started. First she agreed to let me help her with a project she had been working on for years. An advocate of Braille literacy herself, my mom wanted to create a Braille book lending library for the Sightless Children's Club, a nonprofit organization in Ohio that seeks to provide assistive technology to legally blind students. While my mom kept track of the donated books and made a list of titles, authors, genres, and grade levels, I made Braille labels to stick on the spine of each book for quick browsing on the shelves. The books were then packed into boxes and taken to the club's location, where they have since been stored in a library room of considerable size.

Once the library project was complete, my mom suggested that I capitalize on my love of music and my knack for working with kids. As a child I had attended music programs at the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. My mom thought I might love to give back to that program. I took her suggestion, completed volunteer training, and began volunteering at monthly music groups that winter.

A Passion for Service

I did not quite know what to expect when I showed up for my first day of volunteering. I was a freshman in high school. I had only a vague idea what music therapy was, and even less of an idea of how or why it worked. I did not have a set of instructions telling me what to do or how to do it, and I was briefly taken aback when I was told that some of the students were nonverbal and used wheelchairs. I had never met anyone who was nonverbal, and I had had limited contact with wheelchair users. I realized that, just as I wanted to be treated normally, the students I would be helping would want the same thing. After briefly observing the group and noticing how the two music therapists assisted the students, I began to assist them myself. By the end of the day I felt more at ease, and I had aided several students in playing their instruments of choice.

As I continued to help with the music program, I realized that I loved volunteering and looked forward to making music with the group members each month. A year into my volunteer work, I realized that music therapy interested me, and I planned to pursue it as a career. I was recognized with the agency's Paul Silverglade Youth Volunteer Award for my contributions to the youth services program. I was surprised, honored, and grateful to be given such an award, but at that point I knew I was doing service for purely intrinsic reasons. I was no longer after awards and accolades as payoffs for doing a good thing. The benefits I received as a volunteer were far more important than any plaque ever could be. I had found a career that excited me, as well as a passion for community service. I continued to volunteer at the monthly music groups for the rest of my high school career, and I still visit when I am home from college.

The Impact of Service

In spite of a hefty course load at the University of Dayton, I am still extremely interested in giving back to the community. I manage to juggle this interest along with my homework and classes through involvement in several campus organizations. Last year I volunteered with an after-school music program called the Edison Music Project at one of Dayton's inner-city elementary schools. I taught basic piano, clarinet, and percussion to fifth- and sixth-grade students. I joined the coed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, and I have participated in service projects including cleaning up trash around campus, ushering for the spring musical, and participating in a dance marathon to benefitt the Children's Miracle Network of Hospitals. As a member of the University of Dayton Music Therapy Club, I have provided musical enrichment to nursing home residents, teens with developmental disabilities, and patients at Dayton Children's Hospital.

Last semester I participated in what was possibly the most powerful service event of the year. Along with the sisters of Sigma Alpha Iota, a professional women's music fraternity of which I am now a member, I went to a St. Vincent de Paul women's shelter to play for the residents. The women were deeply moved by the music; they laughed, cried, and were very appreciative of our performance. It was great to see that something as simple as music could change someone's day and make her so happy.

Another powerful service project in which I participated as a member of the greater campus community was an annual program called Christmas on Campus. Interested University of Dayton students sign up to adopt a first- or second-grade child from one of Dayton's less privileged elementary schools. The students provide the children with a small Christmas gift and chaperone them as they enjoy a few hours of kid-friendly activities on campus. I really enjoyed spending time with the second grader I was paired with. I felt like I helped him have a good time right before the holidays.

More recently I have been an active volunteer with the first Ohio BELL program. I hope to assist in other NFB programs in years to come. Each of these service projects has shown me the importance of giving back to the community and using my talents and skills to help others.

Conclusion

What does involvement in community service mean to you or to a student you know? Community service has several secondary benefits that are great for volunteers. On the extrinsic level, volunteering can assist students build résumés that are helpful in applying for jobs and scholarships. Students might even earn an award for their service. Aside from the socialization that comes from working as a member of a team and interacting with others, students who volunteer also have opportunities on the intrinsic level. They can gain empathy and compassion for others, improve their communication skills and confidence, and find a career they are passionate about pursuing. Unique to blind students are the opportunities to learn patience for answering questions related to blindness while actively demonstrating that blind people can lead independent lives and contribute to their communities. I believe this is probably the best way to educate the public on the true nature of blindness.

However, it is important to bear in mind that service is not about building a résumé or looking good to a scholarship committee. It should not be done for the purposes of building social skills or as a means of searching for a vocation. Furthermore, the goal of doing service as a blind student should not be to educate the sighted public. Service is not about what is good for the volunteer, but what is good for the person or people the volunteer is seeking to help. Sometimes those extrinsic rewards will come along as the result of service, but when service is done for the right reasons those byproducts will be far more meaningful. I encourage all students to become active servant leaders in whatever ways they can and to strive to do so solely for the intrinsic value of helping others. I also encourage parents and teachers to help their students find ways to serve that utilize their unique talents and capabilities. Charles Dickens wrote, "No one is useless who lightens the burdens of another," and he was absolutely right. Blind students can serve just as effectively and with as much sincerity and compassion as their sighted peers. Whether the project is a large-scale mission trip to a foreign country or an hour of volunteering at a community food bank, the important thing is that it is being done.

The National Federation of the Blind Community Service Group is currently working towards becoming a division. If you are interested in joining the group or aiding in the transition to division status, please contact Darian Smith for more details. You can reach him at dsmithnfb@gmail.com.

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