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My Family’s Year-of-Service Project

I’ve sentenced my family to a year of community service.

Let me explain.

At the end of 2016, my husband and I bought a house. I mean, it’s the kind of house we feel like we never want to leave. Granite countertops, hardwood floors. We have a great view of downtown from the front porch, where we’ve sat and watched New Year’s and 4th of July fireworks. And out back, we have this giant backyard that backs up to desert, which is all BLM land. We have barbecues back there and watch coyotes and jackrabbits come down the hill, and hikers go up and down the public trails.

So we paid off our debt, got this house we love in a neighborhood we love. We’re healthy, we’re happy. My kid goes to a wonderful school, and she’s an only child, so I mean, she has an extra room JUST FOR HER TOYS.

Christmas was insane, you guys. She got SO MUCH STUFF.

Meanwhile, a few months ago, in the areas that literally surround where my mom lives in California’s North Bay, fires forced thousands of people out of their homes. It was incredibly stressful watching her be so close to that, and thinking about how close we are to open desert, where wildfires easily could do the same to our house.

It all just made me realize: We have so much, while those people all of a sudden have nothing. It’s one of those things that makes you think, “Things are too good right now. Something’s going to come along and mess it up.” It’s the waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop thing that was keeping me up nights.

Were we enjoying it enough? Grateful enough?

So over winter break, we packed up a bunch of her old toys, stuff she clearly had outgrown and could no longer make space for, and sent them out to Red Cross in Santa Rosa to help those kids, but the way my daughter was acting was like, “But… but… I WANT that! I love that toy! This isn’t fair!”

And over winter break, she’s pouting because we won’t take her out for dessert this one night. She’s crying when a promised snowstorm doesn’t actually hit and she has to go to school.

CRYING, you guys.

And I LOSE it.

I’m like, “You have NO freaking idea how good you have it.”

So later on that night, after she’s in bed, my husband and I are talking about it, and we’re like, whose fault is that? Have we cushioned her too much from life’s challenges? Is she ill-prepared for the world? And also, are we SHOWING her gratitude? Are we really contributing to making the world the place we want it to be? How can she see how great she really has it?

I mean, if we want to have a kid who’s grateful for the things she has, who contributes to society and helps make her community a better place, don’t we have to show her that? Don’t we want her to understand just how much she has, and how precious dollars and good health and a home are to some folks?

And also, just an aside here, I’ve been feeling this pull toward activism over the last couple of years. I don’t know, maybe it’s a mid-life crisis. It’s this feeling of “What is it all for, anyway?”

I just feel like, if I want to see things be better, shouldn’t I be helping with that?

So, like we all do in times of crisis, I turned to Facebook. I put the word out. “Hey, my husband and I are looking to do some community service with our 8-year-old on a fairly regular basis. We don’t have a lot of time to give, but we’d like to give something. Do you guys have any ideas?”

About 20 people responded.

Girls on the Run of the Sierras chimed in about how they’ve added a community service project to their already great girls’-empowerment program. I introduced them to our school principal so maybe we can get them a chapter at our daughter’s school. Just having done that felt great, and it looks like it may happen in the fall.

Ronald McDonald House chimed in and said, “Hey, why don’t you guys come do the Chef Program?”

The Food Bank of Northern Nevada was like, “Come on down and help pack boxes for distribution.”

A friend suggested we make and serve meals to the homeless at the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, or RISE.

And there were still more! Churches and neighborhood groups and pet shelters…

So our family embarked on a community service project of our own. You’ve heard of a service year? A gap year between high school and college when a young person commits to a year of service? Well, 2018 would be our service year.IMG_0882

In February, we signed our daughter up for one of UNR’s KIDS University community service camps. It was a 2-hour camp at the Ronald McDonald House, totally free, where she spent time making food for the house’s guests and making Valentine’s cards for the families.

In early March, our family joined with two other families we’re friends with (people who said their kids needed similar lessons), and we all made a Sunday dinner for guests at the Ronald McDonald House.

It was a tremendously rIMG_0875ewarding experience to see those families, whose children are seriously ill and in the hospital, come back after a hard day at the hospital—some of them very emotional—and enjoy a relaxing dinner. Seeing that in personreally brought home the power of helping out in this small way.

I’m not sure whether our daughter really got what she was seeing or how lucky she is to be healthy and safe and living at home. But the more we do things like this, the more she will, I think.

Next, in April, we’ve signed up to prepare and serve dinner at RISE. I expect that will be a powerful experience.

And in early May, we’ll take part for the second year in a row in the Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful Great Community Cleanup, helping to beautiful our public park.

My husband takes a well-deserved break with Ronald after helping prepare a meal through the Chef's Program at the Ronald McDonald House in Reno.
My husband takes a well-deserved break with Ronald after helping prepare a meal through the Chef’s Program at the Ronald McDonald House in Reno.

We’re on the hunt for more opportunities, but we’ve decided that each month we’ll give to the community in some way. I expect boxing up food at the Food Bank will be part of it. And I’ve recently joined a friend’s neighborhood coalition that makes food and delivers it to the homeless. I’d like to participate in that as well.

So now that we’ve embarked on this journey, I’m hoping our daughter’s outlook becomes one of gratitude

But this just isn’t for her. You know, there’s so much CRAP happening in the world. I mean, does it feel like that to you? Doesn’t it feel like everything is the WORST?

For me, I feel like the only way out of this funk where I feel depressed about the world is to see for myself all the great, great work that people are doing to make things better. I think that’s all we can do.

So stay tuned. I’ll keep you all posted on my family’s journey here on the blog. And in the meantime, I challenge you and your family to get out there and see how you and your kids can make a difference in the community. I promise, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference—not if we’re all doing it.

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About Jessica Santina

Jessica Santina
Jessica Santina’s love for writing started the summer when she was 11. She and her father created their own hand-bound book of poetry that they’d written together, which they called “Pop & Kid: Collected Writings.” It’s this love of the written word that fuels Jessica’s business today as a freelance writer, editor and university instructor, as well as spending countless hours sharing beloved books with four-year-old daughter, Olivia. When she has a few minutes to herself – a rare gem – Jessica loves to cook, read chick-lit novels, watch cooking shows, and take long, leisurely walks that allow her to come up with blog ideas. Check out her blog for words of wisdom on writing and more.

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