When we talk about service, who are we serving?

This guest post is written by Darell Hammond, CEO & Founder of KaBOOM!

Service is commonly touted as a “feel-good” activity that can help young people develop leadership skills and learn the importance of civic engagement. This is certainly true. But in the absence of meaningful impact, it becomes merely self-service. So how do we make sure that we serve both ourselves and the communities we’re proclaiming to help?

When I joined City Year in 1994, I was asked to go to Columbus, Ohio and plan a service project for City Year’s first national conference. Inspired by a previous volunteer experience, I decided to organize a playground building project.

Ultimately, from an external perspective, the project was a success. It was a cool experience for all the City Year volunteers.. During this process, I realized that projects like these weren’t just about the end result. If your only goal was to put up a playground, the manufacturers could do that a lot faster without a few hundred volunteers getting in their way. But that simply wouldn’t be very meaningful to that specific community or the people who lived in it. If we operated that way, and if installers did all the work, and if the playground magically went up, it would not have nearly the same impact.

This struck me as such a pivotal concept—that community service is almost always better when the community is intimately involved and empowered to continue making change. You can give people tools and resources and ideas, and step out of the way and let the community do the work.

That’s the philosophy behind the community-build playground model that defines KaBOOM!, the nonprofit I went on to found after my experience with City Year. We say, “It starts with a playground,” because our work is not just about bringing playgrounds to underserved communities. It’s also about showing communities how they can plan and rally around a project and what assets they already have at their fingertips.

Many young people dutifully toil through community service hours to get into a good college. I actually quit college for community service. While not a course of action I would recommend, I strongly believe that all young adults should engage in service of some kind. Not because they feel they “have to,” but because they understand its transformative power—both for the self and the community at large.


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