We had been standing for over three hours in the sweltering August heat, but not a single soul had chosen to stop by. Manning the booth with me was a student from another high school, blasting hip-hop through his Beats without so much as acknowledging my presence. There at the Ethnic Expo culinary festival, it was our turn as Key Club volunteers to “increase awareness” of a cause I don’t even remember now. Standing, sweat-drenched and numbed by the intermingling aromas of the Korean and Italian food booths, I was starting to have doubts about whom and how I was really helping through my efforts that day. My first attempt at organized volunteer work seemed like a complete failure.
Community service wasn’t an integral part of my growing up. I’d seen my Christian friends perform charity work through their churches and wondered why my religion, for all its positives, didn’t emphasize this key tenet of service. I realized that I needed to make progress on my own if I cared about helping those in need, and started scouting for opportunities where I could be of the most use.
My first opportunity came through the Big Brothers program, where I mentored a second grader named Patrick who came from a broken home and had disciplinary issues. We would eat lunch and play basketball together once a week, and even though spending time with him was easy and enjoyable for me, I was quite amazed to see how much Patrick benefited from our time together. I hadn’t really considered myself role model material, but as I worked with Patrick on life skills like manners and healthy habits, I certainly felt like one. I found peer tutoring similarly impactful and satisfying; I am particularly proud that Easton, one of the students I tutored, was named “Most Improved” in our program.
Encouraged by the impact of my actions on Patrick and Easton, I felt ready to expand the scope of my service beyond one-on-one mentorship. During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I introduced a local chapter of ACEing Autism, a non-profit organization focused on helping children with autism develop fitness, coordination, and social skills through tennis, my favorite sport. I distinctly remember the afternoon I swung open my front porch door to find a cargo-sized shipment, taller than my mom and packed with numerous rackets, tennis balls, mini-nets and a host of other assorted gear. I inhaled deeply, feeling the simultaneous rush of intimidation and exhilarating anticipation of the work ahead of us. The task of starting our
own chapter had felt daunting at first, but after spending grueling hours organizing sessions, re- cruiting volunteers, and networking with the local special-education community, we were on schedule for our summer launch.
Before ACEing Autism, I had never worked so closely with special-needs kids or under- stood the unique challenges they face. I grew particularly close to Randall, who struggled to speak and had poor coordination skills. Initially unable to hit a single stroke, he progressed over the six weeks to be able to maintain a two-ball rally. It was obvious that those successful returns meant the world to him. By the end of the program, the other kids had also improved; though they reached different ability levels, each of them mirrored Randall’s happiness and sense of ac- complishment. I have realized that the return on service – no pun intended – is enormous; a few hours from my life can make a positive, lasting change in the life of another. The smile on Ran- dall’s face has instilled the value of service permanently in my psyche.
All in all, I was a program director for ACEing Autism for two and a half years. I didn’t exactly know what the outcome of my work would be, but I did know it was meaningful and I enjoyed it. I’m in college now. In hindsight, I can truly see how this program changed many things for the better. I was able to leave my hometown knowing I had left a positive mark on my community. I know I’ve become a more responsible and compassionate person. This program gave me the confidence to get involved with other causes. I’ve noticed that high schoolers often think they aren’t ready or good enough to take up a meaningful initiative. It’s easy to wait until one feels more qualified, but in reality, effort and persistence can be more vital to improvement than talent or skill. I know that if I had waited, I would not be who I am today.