Service versus Charity

 Ridge HowellNeeta Patel is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in 4-H and Future Farmers of America.


I don’t recall ever actively deciding to get involved in community service. Serving others just came naturally, and once I discovered the power of service it became contagious. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to lose yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Throughout high school, even when it was difficult to find time to finish classwork, I managed to make time for a weekly dose of community service. Subconsciously, putting myself in the service of others pushed away the petty problems and worries of my own life, and the values and characteristics that define me were able to take center stage. As I expanded my experiences in community service beyond high school, I learned that effective service takes on many forms.

I was first exposed to the most basic form of community service, charity, through my local 4-H program. Many people argue that charity is not an effective form of service, because it is not an inherently sustainable program within a community. Charity usually originates from outside sources that can come and go as they please. However, my involvement in 4-H taught me otherwise. Through the Together We Sew 4-H club, I sewed blankets for animals at the local shelter, held food and clothing drives, collected donations to ship to troops overseas, and donated homemade cookies during the holidays to a young mothers’ program home. Small projects like these are manageable for the average citizen and add a personal touch to the task at hand by fostering one-on-one interactions between the donor and the donee. More importantly, they address immediate needs within a community that may not be recognized and acted upon otherwise. Although charity functions on a small scale, volunteer work at this level can prove to be extremely satisfying and successful.

As I grew older and took on the role of a teen volunteer within my 4-H community, I became an AmeriCorps member. AmeriCorps enabled me to really harness the power of service and expose others to the opportunities service can provide. During my time as an AmeriCorps member, I resurrected the 4-H Teen Council to promote our mission of leadership to a wider audience. I also helped in youth programming, such as 4-H Club Officer Trainings, to expose younger kids to the ideas of service and citizenship. The projects I executed as an AmeriCorps member, such as a student-directed informational video on the ideal of citizenship, addressed the issue of getting today’s youth more involved in service and more aware of their responsibility as citizens of this nation.

My intense community service background from 4-H inspired me to take a gap year after I graduated high school. Through the Princeton Bridge Year Program, I deferred my enrollment at Princeton University for a year and travelled to Ghana, West Africa where I spent nine months immersed in a foreign culture. While in Ghana, I volunteered at various destinations, including a middle school in a rural village in the Ashanti Region. I taught math and computer classes to the Form One (6th grade) students in my assigned school. Teaching computer class was especially challenging because the school lacked the proper resources to teach the children about modern technology. Over the course of my four months in the village, I raised over $2000 from my high school and 4-H communities to build the school a computer lab. With help from family and friends, I was able to purchase proper electricity and 12 computer desktop stations for my school. Now, future students will be able to learn about computers practically, instead of the old theoretical approach of drawing Microsoft Word documents on the blackboard. The computer project in Ghana was one of my first experiences in larger-scale service projects versus charity. Although the project was more difficult to execute from start to finish and required a huge investment of time, it addressed a deeper issue than charity normally does. The computer project was sustainable and strengthened the community at the core, by furthering the education of their youth. I was able to interact with my school and create a program there that would ensure the protection and success of the computer lab long after I left. This type of project was just as effective as the charity I began with in 4-H, but only addressed a different level of issues.

I am humbled to be selected as a Champion of Change honoree, and I want to use this moment as an opportunity to spread the word about the transformative power of service. Community service takes on many forms, as my story illustrates, and there is something out there to fit everyone’s availability. Whether you want to become involved in a short-term charity goal, or a long-term social project, challenge yourself to take that next step towards action!

Neeta Patel is a first-year student at Princeton University.

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