Giving back: it’s the small things that matter

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In the holiday season, we are often asked how we can give back. Oftentimes, we measure this charitable spirit in quantities: in stacks of cans, number of coats and amount of money. However, beyond just the literal objects that we can give to better someone else’s lives, the most impactful experiences come from shared emotions, no matter how small or insignificant.

Now, I know that this is a very cliché and oft-repeated sentiment. And I know that after standing for five hours in the freezing cold at a YMCA holiday event, it is particularly hard to maintain the same fuzzy, warm feeling of giving back. But I think it is when we keep some semblance of the sentiment in mind that we can give back the most, to both others and ourselves.

It is so easy to see volunteering as a chore. From the holidays to the pressure to have resume filler to the general societal expectations of selflessness, we as high school students are often pushed to volunteer for a multitude of reasons extending beyond our personal desires. I’ve been there myself quite a few times. Every other Thursday, I volunteer at a food closet for three to four hours, where we give out fresh groceries to struggling families and individuals in the area. That usually translates to three to four hours of standing, walking and carrying food. Most times, I’m already exhausted before I arrive and really don’t look forward to the experience.

Yet, everytime I walk out those doors, I feel emotionally fulfilled. After six years, I’ve created connections with my fellow volunteers and regulars to the food closet. Despite sleep deprivation or physical exhaustion, small actions like greeting each other by name or the happiness of a kid after getting dessert always makes the experience worth it. Each individual moment builds up to something greater.

From that sense of appreciating small interactions, I’ve learned to enjoy other volunteering experiences as well. Take, for example, that YMCA holiday event I mentioned earlier. My job was to man the doors to the “North Pole,” where Santa — accompanied by a live reindeer and a sleigh — posed, ready for a night of picture-taking. Because of the high popularity of the event, the children had to stand in long lines outside in the cold, which presented an issue to families with infants. To help protect them from the cold, I would let them wait in the lobby and watch for when their turn came to meet Santa.

In particular, there was a Chinese grandmother who could not speak English taking care of her baby grandson. Separated from the rest of their family, she was worried and confused. Seeing her calm down as I was able to find her family and communicate with her, I forgot the cold and tedious repetition of my role. Within the short five minutes of a few shared Chinese phrases, we had both left some impact on each other.

Within volunteering’s focus to help a collective, there lie infinite direct person-to-person interactions. From these minute moments, we can not only brighten someone else’s day but our own as well. So the next time you find yourself checking your phone as you toil another hour away for some event you got signed up for, try to find some small thing to enjoy. Your smiles can only help to create more.