“Making a Difference in Your Community,” Ensign, Sept. 1988, 12
Throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints are making a difference in their neighborhoods, their communities, and their countries. In the public service arena, they are changing laws, shaping school curricula, working for peace, laboring against gambling and abortion, and helping elect good men and women to public office—or running for office themselves. As ministers to the poor and afflicted, they are serving food in shelters for the homeless, raising money for charities, protecting and aiding abused children, and helping in disaster relief efforts.
Both the scriptures and the latter-day prophets urge us not to limit our service to a close circle around us but to extend our efforts as far and as wide as possible. In an address at Brigham Young University, President Ezra Taft Benson said that it is particularly important for those living in the United States to support the Constitution by becoming involved in civic affairs and making our influence felt “by our vote, our letters, and our advice.” (See Ensign, Sept. 1987.) As Latter-day Saints in the United States celebrate the signing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution during this bicentennial decade, President Benson’s counsel is especially relevant.
Along with legislative and political action, community service is another important way of reaching out. The list of how Church members are involved—both as individuals and in groups—goes on and on:
—More than seventy members in Hawaii recently helped in a community cleanup after a devastating tropical storm.
—Five hundred Latter-day Saints in the Calgary, Alberta, area volunteered for a variety of duties during the 1988 Winter Olympics.
—Denver area members recently helped sponsor the area Winter Special Olympics.
—A member in Scotland plays a computerized keyboard in shopping malls to raise money for charities benefiting local children.
—Primary children in Salta, Argentina, delivered sweets and clothing to orphans, then played games and sang Primary songs with them.
—Richmond Virginia Stake members funded, bought, and prepared a hot breakfast for 100 to 150 homeless people every other Saturday for four months last winter.
—Young people in West Virginia who gathered for a conference participated in service projects that included refurbishing a community center, cleaning and repainting a widow’s home, and cleaning up litter along four main roads and in two city parks.
The many Latter-day Saints who give their time and talents in volunteer service are examples to us all of the power for good each one of us can wield. While emphasizing that others often did far more and that they wish no public acclaim for their efforts, many members acknowledge being surprised at how quickly they have been able to make a significant difference through volunteer work in their communities.
Antoinette Evans Clark learned that lesson almost by chance. Twenty years ago, she and her husband were about to move with their family from Long Beach, California, when Sister Clark discovered that her children’s school was planning to use a new sex-education textbook that she found objectionable for children.
Normally, she would not have felt confident enough to challenge the school, she said, but since she was leaving shortly she didn’t fear the repercussions that otherwise might have made her shrink from speaking out. For two summer months, she and many others spent countless hours presenting their views to community members. Before the new school year began, the textbooks were shelved.
With the insights she gained about her own abilities and her experience as proof that one person can have an impact, Sister Clark became even more involved in civic and community concerns in her new home in northern California. There, she has made her influence felt in issues ranging from school curriculum to child abuse. She has lobbied the California legislature frequently on legislation affecting the family and in 1981 was a delegate to the White House Conference on Families.
Perhaps her most dramatic success came two years ago when she led an effort that resulted in the closing of six pornographic bookstores. With her five children and three foster children now grown, she spends even more time lobbying and has become heavily involved in issues concerning child abuse and foster care.
“Now that my children are gone, I’m involved with things that benefit my grandchildren and other people’s children,” says Sister Clark. “I feel an obligation now to do things that will have a lasting effect on their future.”
For many people, a level of involvement similar to Sister Clark’s would not be possible or wise. But many of us could volunteer once a week at a hospital or participate intermittently in projects such as helping with the Special Olympics or manning voting locations.
John Phoenix, a retired Church member in Arlington, Virginia, picks up donations of food, clothing, and furniture, then delivers the items to the needy two or three times a week. He considers the volunteer work part of his retirement activity and says it gives him great satisfaction.
“It helps a lot, and the people are very grateful,” he says. “It’s a three-way thing—I get something out of it, the people who give get something out of it, and the people who receive are benefited.”
Many parents find that schools are a natural place to get involved in the community because they directly affect their family. JoAnn Huffaker has been volunteering her time to school-related causes since shortly after moving to Las Vegas in 1974. She began, as do many parents in the United States, by joining the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). As she became more experienced, she was better able to see issues with a long-term perspective and wanted to work on issues that would yield benefits many years ahead. During the last few years, she has joined with dozens of other parents in trying to solve the statewide problem of a school-age population that is growing so fast that schools can’t be built quickly enough to meet the demand.
For those who have not been involved in community affairs before, the options may be confusing and even intimidating. Asking yourself several questions like those that follow can help narrow the choices and provide a framework for evaluating how you might best contribute.
What knowledge or education do I have? What are my skills?
Can I channel my abilities in a way that benefits others?
Do I enjoy working with people less fortunate than I?
Do I enjoy politics and issues? How much time can I offer?
What are my neighborhood’s or community’s most pressing needs?
If my activities will involve expenses for such things as phone calls, travel, or baby-sittings, how much involvement can I afford?
Dr. JoAnne Broadbent uses her training in child development as a resource in her volunteer work in Champaign, Illinois. For seven years, she was on her county’s Family Service board, an organization that serves a variety of needs for families and the elderly. She also has been co-president of the PTA and serves as a member of the Junior League, a women’s organization for leadership training and community service.
“I think you need to be involved in things you really are interested in—things that have personal meaning for you,” says Sister Broadbent. “I like to know what’s going on in the community and what organizations are doing what; with my Family Service work, I felt I learned that. I really enjoyed the people I was working with and feel I gained a lot of skills in knowing how to approach groups, how to raise funds, and so on.”
Sister Huffaker found that she learned over time where she could best contribute and how much time and effort she was willing and able to expend.
“Whatever you bring to any volunteer situation, I think you bring a part of yourself. I think you find a level where you fit in and feel comfortable. Little by little you become more familiar with the system and with the people and the administration, and then you can make judgments about where you can or cannot make a contribution—or would like to.”
Sister Clark suggests that people evaluate their own personalities and find volunteer work that fits their preferences and their temperaments.
“Some people just can’t go into a capitol building and walk into a meeting and feel comfortable doing it, and that’s fine,” she says. “Others find that once they do that, it gets in their blood, and then they feel if they can make a difference they’d better do it.”
Different people will end up being involved in different ways according to their resources, their abilities, and their inclinations. Sister Clark emphasizes that volunteers are needed at every level of service. While her children were small, she was able to work on issues she felt were crucial because a neighbor offered to help care for her children.
“She told me that if I would go in and watch over anti-abortion legislation, I could have her baby-sitting services any time. Her work was just as important as mine, and she needed to do it to feel she was contributing.”
Most of us already feel stretched to the limit and might find the idea of adding another responsibility overly burdensome. For some, especially those with young families, it may not be realistic to make long-term, heavy commitments to volunteer service. President Benson has consistently encouraged Church members to become involved in community service, but he has also cautioned balance and fidelity to a clear set of priorities. “The home is the rock foundation, the cornerstone of civilizations,” he has said. “This nation and others will never rise above their homes.”
For that reason, he has counseled parents: “Fathers, you cannot delegate your duty as the head of the home. Mothers, train up your children in righteousness; do not attempt to save the world and let your own family fall apart.” (In Conference Report, Taiwan Area Conference, 1975, p. 3.) For some families, therefore, lighter involvement or short bursts of heavier activity may be more appropriate.
Matthew Ursenbach recently contributed many hours as a Japanese-speaking host for the Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. With two small children and heavy church responsibilities as a Scout leader and deacons quorum adviser, Brother Ursenbach found the Olympics an exceptional short-term opportunity to use his language skills—learned as a missionary—to benefit others.
“I spent eight hours a day, seven days a week from January 31 to March 2,” says Brother Ursenbach. “I came out of it with a real feeling for the spirit of volunteering and the community spirit that a project like the Olympics creates.”
For many women who are full-time homemakers, volunteer work is a welcome respite. Sister Broadbent, of Champaign, Illinois, has four young children, ages eight, six, four and three, and she finds her community service indispensable to a well-rounded life.
Sister Huffaker of Nevada cautions that you will almost always end up stretching yourself a little bit further than you planned. “I don’t think you ever make a decision to become as involved as you eventually become,” she says.
One way of keeping involvement under control is to set up rules or boundaries for involvement. Sister Clark says an important rule—one that she broke only rarely—was to make sure she was home by about 2:30 when her children returned from school. “I did what I could when the children were in school, but when school was out, I was home. It was important to me to be there when they got home.”
There are many good reasons for serving, whether it be to lobby for legislation that reflects gospel values or to minister to the needy. Volunteering makes our communities better places to live for everyone; it can help us feel less isolated and more in touch with others; it can offer a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; it can keep us physically and socially active in our later years. But ultimately, we should be striving to make our reason for serving of the highest and purest kind—the motivation that comes from the pure love of Christ.
The scriptures remind us that nothing we do is truly worthy, whether it be serving the poor or seeking elected office, unless we are motivated by charity, the pure love of Christ. (See Moro. 7:47.) In 1 Corinthians 13:3 [1 Cor. 13:3], Paul tells us, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, … and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
Opportunities for civic and community involvement are everywhere. Many communities have a central clearinghouse for volunteer work where counselors help volunteers match their skills and interests with specific projects. Those wishing to become involved with political issues can contact local political representatives.
Types of organizations or projects that almost always need volunteers include:
—Schools, including teacher’s aides and organizations such as the Parent Teacher Association
—Government advisory boards that make recommendations to government bodies on such issues as community health and mental health, mental retardation, crime, juvenile delinquency, and parks and recreation
—Private organizations that sponsor research and support groups for illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, asthma, lupus, autism, and AIDS
—Disaster relief agencies
—Crisis centers for rape victims or abused children or spouses
—Hospitals and mental health institutions
—Homes for the elderly and mentally handicapped
—Museums and libraries
—Companionship programs for underprivileged children and the elderly.