For over 25 years I have organized groups of youth and adults to go places to work on concerns of substandard housing, homelessness, hunger, environmental impact, animal care, at risk youth and children, older adult care, volunteerism, and assimilation of immigrants; because like most people, I wanted to make a difference in the world for people who didn’t appear to be as lucky as I am.
During the last five years of these trips I began to notice something. Our work, ostensibly addressing these concerns, was not bringing the long-term solutions I thought it should. It became clear that we had been dealing with the symptoms themselves and not the underlying reasons for those symptoms. We were neglecting the fundamental issues. It seemed as though we were altering the surface of a community in need while the underlying issues were only being exacerbated by our approach.
While working on the original concerns, I discovered three principles. Firstly-people caught in the middle of these situations tend to suffer from a loss of hope, a feeling that no one else cares, or an overwhelming helplessness that is self-perpetuating; in some cases, they suffer from all three. Secondly- people who often give of themselves seldom suffer from these issues for very long, if at all. Turns out, doing for others without any thought of getting something in return generates a type of happiness (fulfillment, purpose, direction, self-esteem, contentment, excitement) for the doer 100% of the time. And thirdly- very few people enjoy being on the receiving end.
Taking my experience and new-found understanding of the issues, I returned to Roanoke and started REACH. My number one priority became helping people to understand and embrace serving others unconditionally as the way to happiness and transformational living. I found that we were dealing with three distinct groups of people: our REACHers- people who came into Roanoke for the purpose of helping our clients, our staff- young adults who came for twelve weeks to help us facilitate the service projects, programs and housing of the REACHers, and our clients- those people who are often mistakenly referred to as needy and live in the community where we serve.
I realized that REACH could not dictate what form this service takes for each individual; that not everyone desires to serve in the same manner and that we all have different likes and dislikes, interests and passions. It became REACH’s job to help individuals discover the way in which they can serve, given their particular set of circumstances. We would do this by using the very issues listed in the opening paragraph as tools to help our REACHers discover their place as servants in the community.
Our REACHers were the most straightforward to work with, as they came to serve, and to experience the happiness it brings. All we had to do was come up with viable experiences where they could utilize their own skills and interests. The Staff was more of a challenge, as it was incumbent on us to demonstrate that serving others selflessly is a sustainable lifestyle and not only a workweek. The Clients were still more challenging. Our first contact with them tended to be an invitation into their lives due to a need with which they were dealing – and, remembering our principles- people do not enjoy being on the receiving end of, much less asking for, help. And these are the very people most likely to be suffering the hopelessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we set out to address and therefore least likely to be motivated to serve others.
So we hypothesized and began a process. We first had to establish relationships and gain the trust of the clients before they would welcome us into their communities. We then had to lead by our actions before they would hear our words. These actions or service projects (physical work) our REACHers did, gave us an entry point into the community. The time we spent listening to their stories and getting to know them began to restore their hope for a better tomorrow, demonstrated to them that they are not in it alone, and began to empower them to make changes in their situations.
We spent the last five years fostering relationships and building trust through our actions. We gained access to the community and neighborhoods and have seen glimmers of hope, cooperation, collaboration, and encouragement. We have gained partners and dreamers.
“Go to the people. Live among them. Love them. Learn from them. Start from where they are; work with them; Build on what they have. But of the best leaders, when the task is accomplished, the work completed, the people will say ‘We have done it ourselves.” Lao Tzu
We believe the real empowerment will come as the people being served realize that they too have something to give back, a way to serve others, and they feel the happiness that comes with that service. I believe that once people fully grasp the happiness that comes from serving others, that attitudes, lives and entire communities will be transformed for the good. I believe that each and every individual has the ability to change the world for the better, right here, right now, with the resources at hand. Our purpose is to facilitate that process, and in so doing help them to discover their passion for service. We were all born with that passion – the passion to serve one another. We see it every day in the small things, a smile, a hand, a kind word.
Now this brings us back full circle to all the people we have spent our time and energy helping to experience the happiness that comes from doing for others. Above all we aim to teach them that as good as it feels to serve others by doing for them, it is even more transformational to find ways for them to do for us and their community-to ask for their help; thereby sharing with them the happiness you get by serving others.
Our “official” mission is to encourage the people of Southeast Roanoke to connect and engage with each other through the use of their assets in order to ensure a thriving community*. It is not about what we can do for them – it is about their realizing that they can do for themselves
REACH’s vision is of a community that has discovered the joy of serving and thereby transforms its own lives, homes and community.
“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions-often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.” Ari Weinzweig “Being a Better Leader”