My Blog

May 27, 2018

On the Benefits of Service

As we honor our veterans, several of you mentioned the idea of serving our country during a “gap” year. The Israelis require it as do the Mormons. It is certainly a good idea since service in the military has declined after Vietnam. Very few of our legislators are veterans or understand their needs. Fortunately, there are still young men and women willing to protect us overseas. I especially thank those in our own family who are serving.

To quote the late President Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” The idea of helping others during those idyllic Camelot days became part of who we were. Kennedy helped found VISTA – Volunteers in Service to America, and AmeriCorp which still continue today. Fortunately, the pleasurable sense of virtue from service is still evident in some parts of  the United States.

Today, although we have grown cynical and bitter in the current climate, Americans are still noted for our willingness to donate, to contribute, to help others. With all our wealth and benefits, we do reach out to assist those in need. Our country is known world-wide for helping others.

Mission trips around the world are always popular. There is, of course, a proselytizing element to the trips, but the effort is still there. A father and daughter dentist team went to Central America to fix children’s teeth. My brother and even my elderly mother went to Haiti to help with repairs to homes and families. UNICEF still works to help children around the world. There are, thank goodness, dozens of organizations that do help.

The focus now, however, has turned inward. Our own country is in dire need. There are pockets of poverty in every one of our own cities, poverty that is as bad as any around the world. We help our middle classes with tax breaks, but the poor are left to their own devices.

I was astounded to learn that there are students right here in Huntsville, in our schools, and without doubt, around the country, who LITERALLY have no homes. Either kicked out by their own parents or unwilling to stay in a bad home environment, they camp out with their friends or drift from house to house. The foster care system, which might care for them, is so overburdened that the boys and girls slip through the cracks unnoticed.

While I was at the main library in downtown Houston, I was shocked to see that the vast majority, and I’m talking 98% to 99% of those waiting to get in when the library doors opened, were vagrants. They came in with their carts and their bags of raggedy possessions, hauled carefully into the library. They are smelly, dirty, dressed in rags, with taped up shoes and filthy clothes. Most are elderly and unwell but they are usually quiet, pleasant and polite. For those that aren’t, there is a police presence. Most of the vagrants are careful not to cause trouble or they will lose the blessed benefit of coming into the library.

When I asked the librarians, they just shrugged and said it was a problem faced by every urban library. The libraries are open to all, they are air conditioned, with comfortable chairs and tables, computers to use and magazines to read. Probably most important, they have bathrooms in which the poor can relieve themselves and maybe wash up a bit. No. Scratch that. They don’t. The librarians do their best to keep the derelicts from sleeping at the tables, knocking gently on the table to wake them or reminding the snoring ones that they are disturbing others. I noticed the librarians never touched them.

At the end of the day, the vagrants (is there some more politically correct term now that I should know but don’t?)  gathered in a large group outside the gates. I asked where they go. There are shelters in downtown Houston, I was told, but never large enough to accommodate everyone. I have to add a side note here. While reading about the Enlightenment, I learned that during the 1760s, King Carlos III of Naples and Sicily built a huge building to house the poor. Evidently, the world hasn’t changed that much.

In Houston, those not fortunate enough to get into the shelters sleep on the streets under the overpasses and highways. They find food in dumpsters (as my mother and her husband used to do) or beg for handouts at the back doors of the downtown restaurants. During the Farmers’ Market on Wednesday, I had scarcely put my plastic container into the trash, when one of the vagrants had grabbed it up for scraps.

And jobs are not an option. They are too old, too decrepit, or too feeble-minded to be able to do more than just survive. They may have a small pittance to buy food with, but the money rarely stretches far enough to buy clothes or housing. It is a problem that our society does its best to ignore.

But still our citizens do reach out to assist those in need.

Nowhere is that more evident than during disasters like Ike or Harvey. People flocked to help each other. Neighbors and friends were there first. My sister Sara and her friends helped all up and down the coast with cleaning out houses and feeding and housing those left homeless. Thousands of people worked tirelessly to get people out of flooded areas, using their own boats, their own gas, their own homes. It was a sight that inspired others to do the same. But that is usually short term.

And there are many groups around the country that do help. This past week, UMArmy has been camped at our church to do jobs for people in need in our community. That stands for United Methodists and they are Methodist college students who have paid their own money to join others to help out. They build wheel chair ramps, repaint houses, repair windows and doors, fix air conditioners, overhaul plumbing or do minor electrical work. It is religious outreach and the students attend worship services morning and evening. There is, however, time to relax and have fun included in their schedule. (Why we aren’t doing it ourselves, I’m not sure, or why they aren’t down along the coast where the need is much much greater than our own I don’t know.)

And mission trips are part of every church. Thanks to the tremendous hard work of Judy and Rick, our beloved organizers, several members from our church are going on a mission trip to the South Texas coast. It is an area which is still recovering from being hit so hard by Harvey. Our group is not going to rebuild whole houses. We do what we can.

Faced with a long list asking the participants to check off their skills, Judy felt embarrassed at the one or two she could list: painting and clean-up. But she is always willing to do anything she is asked to do and that is worth everything. No one works harder than she does.  Okay, maybe Rick but they make a great team and they inspire the rest of us.

We all know people who quietly contribute to help those in need. I’m sure many of you do all the time. Although church groups are in the lead, my college students contribute and help through their sororities and fraternities. Rotary and Lions Club are in the forefront to help others. Companies, large and small, also help. Christmas and Easter are always times when donations rise but there are Food banks and local charities that help year-round.

Perhaps we can pat ourselves on the back and feel virtuous on our mission trips. But there is still so much that needs doing. Would that we could convince our whole society to buy into the idea of a “gap” year of service. Wouldn’t it be something if we could have our young people offer their youth and vitality to help our own country? Or our seniors share their knowledge and expertise with our children? One school had their students learn cursive by writing letters to the elderly in the nursing homes. What a boon for both of them.

To quote from a US News report, “Some of the most innovative service programs are particularly noteworthy because their creators refused to be daunted by the breadth of the challenge, the absence of any model to guide them, or even a lack of expertise. . . . the efforts of everyday Americans are having an impact and millions are benefiting in the process.”

As we thank our veterans, perhaps those halcyon days of Camelot and service to community will return. We can only hope.

About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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