Sunday, May 8, 2011

Come together, give back

Sometimes it takes the worst of circumstances to bring out the best in people. And occasionally, the worst of circumstances brings out the worst in people, too, but I will not glorify this element of society by detailing their actions here. Since the tornado of April 27th, my hometown (and home state) have been inundated with volunteers: people who call Tuscaloosa and Alabama home, and chose to make use of their good fortune and in turn give back to those who were not so fortunate, and people who had never been to Alabama, or likely had never heard of Tuscaloosa before the large-scale destruction across a huge swath of the city. Celebrities have used their fame to bring attention (and money) here. Newscasters abandoned the previous top news event of the week, the royal wedding, to come to Tuscaloosa and report live. (Even the President and First Lady flew down to visit the affected areas!) Fans of the in-state rival college created a network through social media to bring together individuals and groups from all over the state and country to get supplies and volunteers where they were (are) needed most, via an almost minute-to-minute series of updates. Churches and vacant stores are now donation and distribution centers. City recreation facilities are volunteer check-in and assignment points. Businesses parking lots have been converted to make-shift restaurants, with grills and smokers set up to supply volunteers and those affected by the tornado with food to get them all through whatever each new day brings. Area farmers set up tables on public thoroughfares offering fresh fruit to anyone who stops by. Students were released early, the semester ended almost immediately, and yet many stayed behind to help, or returned to their homes to organize fundraisers and start local donation centers.

It is at once humbling and a source of pride to see this unfold after what this town has suffered. To see people -- especially those with no ties to this community or even this state -- give of their time, their resources, their lives, in this reminds you of what most people are truly capable of. We see those who have lost friends or family, whose homes have been damaged or even destroyed, who may be newly unemployed because their place of employment no longer exists, or who no longer have a livelihood because their small business was reduced to a pile of rubble. We see those people who have been directly impacted in a way that will never leave them, will always be a fresh memory in their mind's eye, and instead of hearing countless stories of heartache and loss, you often hear gratitude borne out of the idea that "it could have been worse." For some, it was. It was the worst it could possibly be. Mothers and daughters who will never celebrate another birthday. Fathers and sons who will never share an afternoon at a ball game or on the lake. Children who are too young to comprehend and will soon outgrow the memory of a parent lost. Young parents who will never forget the child taken from them at a tragically young age. And yet, in the midst of all the heartache, the loss of life, the loss of homes, in the midst of the chaos that is the near-unidentifiable landscape of this town, of many areas of this state, people have chosen to see the good. To know how much worse it could have been. How much higher the death toll could have gone.

In no way do I intend for my next statements to take away from anything I have said to this point. Rather, I am simply sharing what has rumbled around in my mind since that day, and since I have been home to witness these things firsthand. There was a sense of unity following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, because people from around the country came together to take care of our own, and to honor the fallen. A similar unification followed Hurricane Katrina's devastation along the Gulf Coast. And countless other tragedies have caused us to abandon our differences, come together, and give of ourselves to improve the lives of those whose lives have been destroyed. What will not stop echoing through my brain is simple: why do we only reach out to one another when mass tragedy strikes?

Granted, not everyone can abandon their jobs for a week at a time to run a donation center, or drive a big-rig across five states to deliver hundreds of gallons of water at their own expense. Not everyone can routinely make major financial donations to the charity of their choice. But if we can give all day Saturdays and Sundays for weeks on end after tragedy strikes, why can't we all invest 2-3 hours a week back into our communities? Why do we not collectively see the value and the impact of the spirit of volunteering as a part of our normal routine? If the amount of volunteerism currently in progress, in terms of the 'good intentions' therein, were parallelled in every day life, how much better would our cities and towns be? How much more would we be able to reconnect in our communities if we were more willing to reach out to our neighbors?

What do I mean? Pick a night when you know you will usually be at home parked in front of the television -- designate that to be the night you work at the soup kitchen, or be the leader of a scout troop. Train to be a literacy volunteer and teach an adult who never learned to read the skill that will open new doors and change their life forever. Do you usually sleep in on Saturday mornings? Sign up to work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and spend Saturday morning exposing a young child to parts of life they might never see otherwise, and open up new opportunities to them. Are you creatively/artistically gifted? Volunteer your skills with area non-profits to help them design shirts to sell at fundraisers, or donate your works to charity auctions. Know your way around a computer? Be the unpaid webmaster for a non-profit that does not have the resources to maintain a great web presence. Skilled in performing arts? Round up your dance/theater friends and offer classes to inner-city kids who cannot afford to pay for them in a traditional venue.

Think about how you truly spend your free time. Surfing the web? Refreshing Facebook or Twitter every 60 seconds watching for new posts or tweets? Maybe even consider altering your family's schedule. Do your kids have too much on their plate? Negotiate what extracurriculars they will give up and volunteer as a family at a permanent shelter or food pantry. Raise your children to include volunteering in their regular schedule just as they would school, work, sports, church, etc. What about how you spend your money? What if once a week you had a frozen pizzas instead of taking the family out to Pizza Hut? Do you pay for 500 channels on your cable TV, when you rarely turn the TV on for anything other than background noise? Could you save the $40 you spend on a night at the movies and get a $1 movie at the Redbox instead? How many of us think we do not have money we can donate in some capacity, and if we truly picked through our spending habits, we would find simple changes we could make that would free up $25 this week, $75 next month, etc.? 

We all know what pitching in and trying to get a hurting community back on its feet does. It benefits those who have suffered, it reinstills a sense of togetherness among those involved, and as is always the case with selfless giving -- you will walk away from it feeling better for having given of your time and your resources, and for having done your part. My challenge to all of us is simple: audit your days and your dollars, and find ways to give back. And challenge yourself -- don't just write a check; your hometown will be all the better when there are more 'boots on the ground' pitching in, too! 

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