When I first found out I’d be interning in the New York City Mayor’s Office this summer, I resigned myself to a summer of desk work, with perhaps some filing thrown in for variety.
I accepted my placement with a nagging sense of hypocrisy—wouldn’t my summer be better spent, from a public service perspective, doing tangible, hands-on work? Perhaps it’s my innate distrust of anyone who wears a suit to work, or my reluctance to spend 8 hours a day indoors, but there’s always been a part of me that has trouble accepting that office jobs, even government ones, are truly public service.
So, imagine my surprise when I began working at NYC Service, an office launched by Mayor Bloomberg in April in response to President Obama’s national call to service. The program has three core goals: channel the power of volunteers to address the impacts of the current economic downturn, make New York City the easiest city in America in which to serve, and ensure every young person in New York City is taught about civic engagement and has an opportunity to serve.
One of my biggest tasks was marshalling all the interns working for the city of New York (1000+) into a volunteer force. We took them to senior centers and day camps, city parks and blood drives. It was my first time managing groups of volunteers, but what surprised me most was not the enthusiasm with which nearly every volunteer arrived but the immediate interest they showed in volunteering further.
Once you catch the service bug, it seems, you’ve got it for life. I saw volunteers who had held a trowel for the first time that morning vowing to help out weekly at their neighborhood park, and others declaring their intention to return to a senior center the next week, and the week after that. Convincing people to serve is often an uphill battle, and discovering what motivates them is half the challenge. I know people serve for a myriad of different reasons—to give back, to atone, to get a free t-shirt, to graduate from high school. The volunteers I worked with served the first time because they had to, but I think they kept serving—both at events organized by my office and through opportunities they found on their own—because of something valuable that both they and I learned.
What we learned is this: service is messy. Service is accidentally unearthing a bee hive while trying to avoid the poison ivy surrounding the invasive species you’re weeding and adding three brand-new bee stings to your brand-new rash; it’s getting yelled at by an irritable senior who wants chicken salad when you brought her tuna and wants to know why she has to eat canned peaches instead of fresh, again, and would like you to note that old people need their nutrients too, thank you very much; and it’s back aches and dirty fingernails and juice-stained pants and sunburns.
But service is also something a little bit magical: it’s learning strangers’ life stories and planting something new in a place people wouldn’t expect it and the beautifully simple genius of using white paint – paint! – to reduce heating costs.
And, most importantly, service is easy. To feel good by doing good—this is one of life’s simplest and most accessible pleasures. And to see this knowledge dawn on volunteers one by one was one of the highlights of my internship, and one of the more rewarding experiences of my lifetime. It has certainly redoubled my dedication to service, and I hope the same can be said for the volunteers I worked with.