“Their homes were the size of a large bathroom in the United States and didn't have mattresses or tile floors, yet the families who lived in them were not downtrodden or bitter.”
The question “How does helping others help us?” caused me to reflect on my experiences serving others from the time I was in grade school through my current positions at Illinois Institute of Technology.
The act of self-giving was a central part of my Catholic education from so many years ago. Faith and love were the cornerstones of my most memorable service experience from those days, a “reversed missionary” trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico. My group’s accommodations had running water, a cafeteria, and flush toilets; the people we came to serve did not. I realized that the true objective of the experience was to meet people who had very few material possessions but had a large love of God and community, and great faith. Their homes were the size of a large bathroom in the United States and didn't have mattresses or tile floors, yet the families who lived in them were not downtrodden or bitter. This trip not only helped me to grow as a person, but it also inspired my work at IIT with the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) student organization and the Division of Student Affairs.
New to the dean of students position in 2010, I was approached by former ASB participants who had concerns regarding their experiences. Among them was that the event highly depended upon IIT staff for trip planning; consequently, ASB students had limited motivation to raise money and sometimes even attend the trip. I reached into my past for inspiration and with the students made three improvements: creating a constitution and an executive board; moving the ASB selection process to the fall; and establishing rules and expectations that set a tone of service, not of privilege.
As a leader of the Division of Student Affairs, I also wanted to promote teamwork as well as model the lifestyle of service we encourage for our students, and sought feedback from my staff on creating a service opportunity for division members. For our first service day last December at Chicago’s RTW Veteran Center, 20 professional staff members cleaned toilets, scrubbed ovens, organized and sanitized a food pantry, washed dishes, and talked with center visitors for nearly four hours. The event was so successful that this May we served at multiple sites, including Benton House, the St. James Food Pantry, and Eden Place Nature Center.
Accustomed as I am to not only working with students but also being inspired by them, I asked my two sons—Ben, 7, and Conor, 9—for their take on helping others and was amazed by their insight. My younger son said that helping people makes him happy, which put a smile on my face. Conor, however, basically told me that he helps people because he cares for them, not because doing so helps him. He focused on the person exclusively.
While my experiences and observations over the years have done much to help me realize how the qualities of compassion, love, and sacrifice are important pieces of why service is so meaningful, for me, the best answer is always the simplest—and just so happened to come out of the mouths of babes. Helping others helps me because as a human being I care and want to be a part of that process. And also, because it makes me happy.