A volunteering story by: Kimberly McLaughlin
In high school, I agreed to volunteer at one of the underprivileged schools in the Las Vegas area. It was an extremely rewarding experience to go to the school after my school day was over and connect with these young children. Part of our duties were going over spelling, math, and reading subjects with the children who stayed after school due to their parents not being able to pick their child up at the time school was out. I remember looking forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays specifically because it meant I could see my little friends and talk to them about their day. Seeing the light go off in their head when they answered a question correctly or watch them move through difficult situations, learning each step of the way was incredibly rewarding. These children were not just overcoming challenges at school; their home life was a true struggle as well. Despite being in unfortunate situations, these children were extremely happy and excited to have these older friends coming to teach them new lessons each week. One girl even saved a dollar she had to give to me to thank me; I, of course, declined the very sweet gesture, but was so touched to know the impact I made on her life by extending those extra hours of my day. Many of these children were bilingual and were struggling with their English. It was a joy to help them sound out words and even teach them new ones. Some days, I felt like I was getting a free Spanish lesson! During Math days, the kids would get into groups and we would solve simple equations using fun and interesting games. If we had a student go to the other side of the classroom, we were subtracting a person, therefore teaching them how to minus one from a group. We would reach short stories and identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives to help them understand grammar and content of sentences. Through telling stories, we would pick out the main character as well as the overall moral.
I heard a lot about volunteering throughout school and my sister took part in Make-A-Wish club, as well as offering her time at the Hollingsworth School. It was inspiring to see her give back to the community and help others in need. We would participate in charity walks and donate clothes to the Goodwill, but spending time with her and these children was incredibly rewarding to our bond as sisters. We have always had a very privileged life and were taken care of by amazing parents, and seeing the way these kids were treated and cared for truly broke our hearts. The very least we could do was offer a few hours after school each week to help the children learn, as well as have fun! Knowing that at times these kids weren’t even sure how they were going to get to school, made our commitment that much stronger to always show up when we said we would; these young kids needed to trust our word and not be let down in yet another area of their life.
I think another motivation for me was to get outside of myself and any selfishness I was holding on to at that time. My parents always taught me to look at the bigger picture in life and know that others were less fortunate and to always be incredibly grateful for my circumstances. When going to parties or the designer purse you had seemed important, it was time to find an outlet to motivate me to look beyond the superficial and really see the way people live. These children often didn’t have the appropriate clothing on or wore the same shirt the whole week. They didn’t get lunch packed for them and most often, mom wasn’t late because she was making dinner for them at home. Drugs and poverty were the norm in this part of Las Vegas and these children were born into extremely difficult situations, where there chances to get out and live successful lives were slim. In the wealthy private school I attended, there were merely a statistic and we were the lucky ones. Going to actually see what that statistic looks, sounds, and acts like is a completely eye opening experience that I was extremely lucky to have had. The shocking part is that these children were so happy and grateful for the very little they did have. A cookie could make their week or getting a right answer to a question made them feel smart. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a child understand a new lesson and watching them carry it out. When they treated each other poorly, we taught them to respect one another and to only speak with kind words. Certain children were stuck in anger and they learned to speak their mind and that it was okay to feel what they were feeling. I know from personal experience that is is much easier to look at my own situation after helping some with theirs because I had moments of anger about my life and what I felt what not fair. These children taught me that no matter how hard things seem, everything will be okay if you stay determined and focused on your future and dreams. Life is a series of lessons and hardships that make it seem too difficult to deal with at times, but finding moments of clarity such as those during my time at Hollingsworth, helped me understand myself better.
After months of going to that school, I noticed a change in myself. I no longer cared what people thought of the way I dressed, how I spent my time, or what I wasn’t doing right. I became more concerned with college and furthering my education to ensure I was taking advantage of all the incredible opportunities available to me. I liked spending time with my sister, who was largely a homebody, because we had this mutual experience that broadened our mindsets and perspective. My free time was spent playing volleyball and reading, actitvities I could get lost in, rather than worrying about the Homecoming no one asked me to. It may sound minute, but for me it was a huge shift in bettering myself and in my own maturity. I was preparing to work at Merrill Lynch during the summers to save up money, rather than to just ask my parents for an allowance. I was acting much differently than I had before those children opened up my eyes to what I had in front of me at my fingertips. Often during quiet moments, I would think of certain kids and wonder if their mom finally learned English or if their dad eased up on his harsh tone. Those children’s lives were imprinted in my heart and I still haven’t lost sight of how that experience truly made me a different person. I only wish it did not have to end, and that I could continue to help the community in such a powerful way. Things changed as life went on and I began to go down dark and difficult paths that paved even more challenging times to go through. My father was diagnosed with leukemia and was increasingly more ill day by day. He had to get a bone marrow transplant and go through extensive chemotherapy. I did not manage these emotionally wearing times and turned to negative coping mechanisms to get through pain. Eventually, I got to the other side and volunteered with the American Cancer Association, as an effort to give back to patients struggling with their health. My mentor, Debbie, was a kind and loving person who devoted her life to helping those with cancer, after she lost her husband to this deadly disease. I remember our long talks about their bond and the sense of responsibility she felt when he passed. A few years later, Debbie passed as well and her incredible mark on the world was left for others to admire.
Since then, I have been trying to find time in a very busy work schedule to give back. As a young adult on my own, I work tirelessly to support myself but felt that if so much as to one person reads this story and is inspired to volunteer, then it was worth sharing it. I will continue to look for opportunties to give back, hopefully, some that resemble my time at Hollingsworth School so I can feel that sheer empathy and compassion for others in need. Life has been an everchanging reflection of events and I am at a time in my life where I need to give back. Whether this is helping addicts and alcoholics in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, or with sparing some change for the homeless people in my area. I constantly go through my clothes to donate whatever I don’t absolutely need, just hoping that those garments are given to someone who needs them. I feel very privileged to be where I am today and know that without the support and helps of others, it would not be possible. Gratitude needs to be expressed outwardly in providing service to others and I hope that taking some time to share my experience in volunteering, that messages comes across. I find that I am the best version of myself when I am conscious of what I have to give to others, with no thought of what I will recieve from kind gestures. It is important to me to strive to be the best possible person I can be and through sharing an inspiring message, opening my ears to hear one, and being willing to experience more, I find is the way to fulfill that goal. Being aware of how lucky I am is not enough; gratitude it is about the journey giving back to others.
The Aha! moment…
In all child development, there are challenges with kids behaving or lashing out with others. It was great practice to see how kids act in group situations and how their behaviors have been learned and fostered in their home. Often, the children were taught to be protective, defensive, and fearful. It even took a few weeks to have them feel open and comfortable with my new face. Through nuturing them and making them feel safe, I was finally accepted into their world and heart. I’d like to believe that our small group of volunteers going each week really made an impact on how they viewed school, the importance of education, and how they’d like to live their lives. Every now and then, it would break my heart to see a young girl with no jacket or no ride home, and I would have to remember my boundaries and limits with volunteering. Such a close bond is created when one individual helps another for no reason at all. If more people would consider participating in such experiences, the world would be incredibly different. The opportunity I took part in those years ago never left my memory and I still find myself thinking of those young kids, wondering how their life took course. I hope their paths were bright and filled with the happiest of times, and that they always remembered they could live out their dreams as long as they held on to them.
To summarize it in three words…
- Rewarding, Eye-opening, and Profound
Why should you do this
I absolutely recommend all people look to ways they can better the environment and world by volunteering their time to others. This can be helping the homeless, devoting time to the elderly, rebuilding homes for the devasted, or spending time with children in need. I think volunteering time is just at powerful, if not more, than making donations. There is no greater feeling than knowing you impacted someone’s life by just spending a few hours with them. We often sell ourselves short and fail to realize our strengths and how others can benefit from our skills and knowledge. For instance, I had a higher level of knowledge in math, which allowed me to help a bunch of elementary kids with their equations. Sharing life changing moments with a stranger can completely expand our perspective of our own lives and set an entirely new course, based on those experiences. I completely recommend all people look within their hearts to spend time finding ways to give back to the community, in any way shape or form.