Three Cheers for “Selfish” Service

“I’m happy to be a worker bee,” my friend said as we contemplated the latest plea for parent volunteers. “Just don’t ask me to organize anything!”

Our daughters, now in high school, had participated in many of the same activities since kindergarten. I can’t even remember if this particular request was for Girl Scouts, or sports, or school, or religious ed, or…you get the idea.

My friend was what I call, corny as it sounds, “a good egg”—one of those people who always seems to step up to help out in our small community. (It seems you often see the same faces, and meet the same outstretched hands, for such things.)

This mom always showed up, and I respected her as a neighbor and friend. That was why, in that moment, I appreciated her honesty.

Truth is, we all have our own ways to serve, and it is important to be deliberate about that effort. I have had to develop my own rule about volunteering over the years, and it’s actually rather selfish.

These days, I only say “yes” to opportunities that make me happy or are important to me. That still covers a lot of ground, of course, but it does help narrow my focus and make me feel better when I say “no.”

It wasn’t always this way. Nearly 12 years ago,
I chose to leave the workplace—where my paycheck as an editor barely covered our day care expenses–and become a stay-at-home parent when our third child was born.

It was the right choice, at the right time, for our young family, and I wouldn’t trade the slow-moving years of sippy cups and sunblock for anything. But I did feel guilty for “just” being at home and jumped at every opportunity to still contribute my time or talent elsewhere.

Edit the neighborhood newsletter? Sure! (Actually, kind of fun, even if it was largely about the chili cook-off and cleaning up after your dog).

Spend a couple of hours each month checking out books and smiling at first-graders at the school library? Absolutely! (No regrets on that one—everyone should be so lucky)!

Wear a witch hat and hand out “fortunes” at the school-wide Halloween party? Yes. (Once. Never again. )

Teach Sunday school? Yes. (I learned as much as the kids did.)

In some ways, saying “yes” is easy. Everyone feels good when they say, “Yes.” Saying, “No,” is tough but, I learned, necessary over the long haul.

So, I adjusted my approach.

Stand up in front of the congregation and ask others to teach Sunday school? Nope. Not even if Jesus himself asked.

Write a check and return a form letter? Never ever. Straight to the garbage (but recycled because I am not a total monster).

Ten years, and countless hours, after I started being more selfish with my time and energy, I’d like to think my efforts have made some difference.

My daughter’s Girl Scout troop, led by another (very organized) friend and me, has been together since kindergarten. Now we have 10 ninth-graders preparing to start their work for the Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting and one that requires at least 80 hours of service each.

That’s 800 hours of good. That’s important.

And I do what I can, mostly just sending emails, to help organize opportunities for my daughters and their friends to play their chosen sports of field hockey and tennis. I take my cue from the example of the team parents ahead of me, who shared information about training, tournaments and clinics when my girls first joined.

They get to grow in the sport they love, which helps keep them happy and healthy as young women. That’s important.

And, full disclosure: Sometimes my effort is as small as signing up to bring cheese sticks and oranges for our son’s soccer game (the “worker bee” approach).

But my husband has found his own “yes” on that same field, coaching that soccer team for years now. That makes me happy.

And when I hear about a venture like Passport for Good, which helps volunteers and organizations make the most of their heartfelt efforts, I say, “Yes.”

Say “yes,” say “no,” but figure out what’s important and what makes you happy. Some of the most meaningful work gets done in community rooms, or libraries, or at even at home. Find your talent, tell your truth, and take action.