by Neal Lemery
I found myself in the heart of the richness of my community’s life the other day. Tillamook High School charity drive students were handing out checks to a wide variety of community organizations, funding grants for over twenty community projects and activities.
The money comes from a ten day frenzy of fund raising in February that engaged the entire community. High school students, along with parents and other community volunteers, pitched in to raise money. Car washes, dinners, garage sales, a scrap metal drive, donkey basketball, silent auctions, and other events made sure that you have no reason to cook dinner that week, or stay at home on a rainy evening. The high school classes competed with each other, and organized the various events so that every day was filled with tempting meal choices and other activities.
It was also a week of socializing with the rest of the community, reconnecting with old friends, and strengthening our community ties.
“It’s all about relationships,” I heard on numerous occasions.
The fund raising capabilities of these kids is phenomenal, usually raising over $200,000 during the week, astonishing in a rural area of maybe 8,000 people. Half of the funds are given to the Doernbecher children’s hospital, and half stays in the community. This is an annual affair, and has been going on since the 1950s, when it started as part of the March of Dimes campaign against polio.
The student committee invited community groups to apply for grants, and again, the community reaps the benefits of our hard-working, community-minded youth.
This year, $56,000 was given to local non-profits to support their own charitable activities in the community. Applicants have to justify how the funds will improve community life.
I gathered with people from other organizations, as students began handing out the checks. We shared our stories with each other, eagerly chatting about where the money would go, how people’s lives were touched. We are so rich in the ways that we help others, and make a real difference.
I happily received one of the checks, destined to help one of my organizations improve its capacity to serve the community, and to give youth another activity to enrich their lives. There were smiles all around, as the students connected with us, as we shared the joy of giving back to the community, and building better lives.
“Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place…”. (David Treuer, The Heart Beat of Wounded Knee)
As we all gathered in front of the high school, we stood united. In this small town, I didn’t see an unfamiliar face. We had all played a part in the charity drive, and now, we had come together, to share the rewards, to invest back into the community, and build again in service to the common good.
That sense of satisfaction, of common community purpose continued on, as I stood in line at the bank a few minutes later with some of the others who had received checks.
“A special day,” one of them remarked. “A day of giving back to the community, and making a difference.”
This celebration was in sharp contrast to what I’d just seen on the national news, filled with stories of disasters, political discord, and crime. How nice is it, I thought, to be part of building community, rather than hearing of social discontent and chaos.
As the passive observer and a consumer of the national political and cultural scene, I keep wondering what is my role in all of that. I tire of being the passive witness, the feeling of impotence and paralysis.
Can I be an instrument of change? Rather than just hear about a problem, I could step up and be a force for making a difference. Yet, most of the organizations that operate nationally, seem to be only wanting my check, or me to sign an electronic petition, rather than invite me to roll up my sleeves and take on a problem, fully engaged, hands on, giving a little of my talent, a little of my sweat and time. I yearn for that sense of connection, and relationship.
That opportunity is right here in front of me, I realized. Here and now is the place where change can and does happen.
Locally, there are ready made roles for all of us. Our neighbors, our friends, and family are deeply involved in local life, in activities that are changing how we live, providing opportunities and resources for others in our community. Almost literally outside of my front door, I can be involved, and I can help make a difference in other people’s lives and the health and wellbeing of my community.
I saw that in the smiles of the high school students the other day, their joy a reflection of their own hard work, their own commitment to the community, their satisfaction in applying their own talent, time and sweat into making a real difference, in building better lives and a better place to live for their neighbors.