Service – It Builds Character

In August of this year, Hurricane Irene tore through upstate New York completely devastating a large region, including many small, quintessential towns. Part of this area included the Catskill Mountains, home to the setting of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Although Irving’s writings are quite descriptive, I think he would agree that no words could ever truly depict the beauty of the area.

Irving couldn’t have selected a more idyllic setting for those stories. The beauty of the Catskills is majestic and yet somewhat mysterious, with rolling mountains and trees as far as the eye can see. No other place could have evoked the same enigmatic emotions as the Catskills.

The Catskill Mountains hold a special place in my heart, for they are part of my childhood. I grew up there and still bring my own children to enjoy the beauty of the region each and every summer. When pictures of the devastation circulated the web –

homes swallowed up in the depths of water,

bridges swept away in raging rapids or buried beneath layers of driftwood,


and entire towns and homes destroyed beyond repair


– something swelled within me.

I wanted to help.

So, in a very unlikely character trait of spontaneity, I packed my bags and made the eight hour drive from my home in Virginia to the small towns of upstate New York – many of which were still without power. I wasn’t sure how I could help or if I would even be put to work, but it didn’t take long to find ways to serve. From mucking knee-deep mud out of basements to shoveling and sweeping dirt off of sidewalks to removing debris and destroyed belongings onto large trash piles, there was always something to keep me busy. Even a simple act of delivering homemade cookies to workers brought a sense of overwhelming joy. A reward of knowing I’d served someone in their time of need.

Over a week later, when I arrived home, my middle-grade children greeted me with smiles. “We’re proud of you, Mom,” they all said. When I went to New York, all I wanted was to help others. What I didn’t know is that my efforts would have a profound effect on my children.

While I don’t write this post for praise, I do write it in hopes that the readers will come to understand how service can impact not only those in need, but the innocent eyes of our children, eagerly anticipating our example.

And believe me, middle-graders notice. While we think they’re too busy with homework, friends and afterschool activities, they’re quietly (or not so quietly) absorbing the information that’s provided to them. They’re observing everything about the world around them. They are perceptive.

So as adults – parents, teachers and leaders – we need to be cautious in our words as well as in our actions. We also need to remember that middle-grade children are capable. They can serve in the community, too. Their efforts can make a difference. The best part about serving is that you don’t have to travel out of state, there are plenty of opportunities right in your own community.

A few years ago, when my middle daughter was in second grade, her entire class made blankets for Project Linus. This organization takes handmade fleece blankets and delivers them to local hospitals, specifically for children in need or with long term illnesses. It is, in fact, perfectly reasonable for a roomful of eight year olds to make these blankets with adult supervision and assistance.

Middle-grade children can write letters to soldiers and missionaries. Cheerios and the USO has teamed together to provide free postcards on the front of marked boxes. They’re easy enough for a middle-grader to fill out, stick on a stamp and send off to a military family. It’s a simple and fun way to say thanks!

Tree Musketeers is an organization founded by kids, run by kids and lead by kids. They encourage other children to care for the environment. The Arbor Day Foundation also has programs for children and adults to help plant trees and gardens at your school or in your community.

photo courtesy of photobucket

There are countless other ways to get involved. Assemble care packages for our service men and women, collect canned goods for a food drive and donate clothes, toys and other items to shelters. The list is endless. Or for literacy based service, be a reading buddy to younger children, create bookmarks then donate them to school and local libraries, and form a monthly book club.

Studies have shown that serving strengthens families, provides a greater sense of community and boosts self-esteem. There is also evidence that it improves health as well as helps students earn better grades in school. It teaches children job skills, gives them a sense of responsibility and aids in their realization that even one person can make a difference.

At Service Leader one study showed that children under the age of fourteen who participated in service projects were less likely to be involved in at-risk behaviors. And at the National Service website their study provided interesting statistics as well. “When compared to a youth with no family members who volunteer, a youth from a family where at least one parent volunteers is almost two times more likely to volunteer, and nearly three times more likely to volunteer on a regular basis.”

Service provides just as much to the recipient as it does to the volunteer. It truly is an act of selflessness, a path to learning to think beyond yourself. We live in a world of instant gratification, but service provides an opportunity to learn patience and perseverance. In the spirit of giving this holiday season, I hope you will find ways to serve within your community. I hope you’ll encourage the middle-graders in your life to participate and grow with you through these endeavors. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll build character!

If you’ve created a volunteer organization within your community, and encouraged middle-grade children to take part in it, please tell us about your experience. If you have additional ideas for serving, particularly with middle-graders, we’d love to hear them!

Amie Borst writes humorous fairy tales with a twist. She’d love to have you visit her at her little slice of fairy tale heaven.