The year was 2007. The non-stop Celtic Tiger party in full swing. I worked in sales. There was a buzz from it and a good wage. Life was good. I was asked by a wise gentleman, ‘When you are in your eighties and looking back at your achievements in life, what would make it a life well-lived?’ I paused momentarily before snorting back, ‘Well, working hard and ensuring I had enough to make my retirement years comfortable.’
Later that year a friend asked would I be interested volunteering overseas with SERVE. SERVE work in partnership with the Redemptorists to provide education and skills training for the most vulnerable in our world. I had not heard of them before, let alone had I any great desires to do work like this. I said I’d give it a go.
Skip forward a few months to July 2008. ‘Welcome SERVE volunteers’ read the banner. We had arrived at the Badjao Tribe in the Philippines. Nothing could have prepared me for what I walked into. A community with a life expectancy of 40 years of age. Illiteracy of over 90 per cent. Families living in tiny huts made from chip board. The guilt was too much. The urge was to go to my pocket. Would that be a way to help or merely a way make me feel better, less guilty? How could people live like this? How come we never saw this on the news? I was truly outside my western comfort zone. That day I took a mental picture and saved it in my heart.
This community wanted education for their children. They can build the school themselves. Who are we to come in and show them how to build a school or start handing out money? Instead we chatted, sang, danced, played and got to know each other. I have learned that the greatest gift we can give is our presence. Ask any senior person living alone in Galway.
SERVE empower local communities to take charge of their own sustainable projects. That is why SERVE work with a local partner and the local community. What matters to them is that people 8,000 miles away care about them. The SERVE volunteers leave a lasting impact on a community. They are role models for the next generation. It is just as important as the fundraising we did for the project.
‘Charity begins at home.’ ‘We must look after our own.’ Of course we do. A child in Ireland is entitled to be happy and healthy. I believe a child everywhere on our little planet has an equal right. I don’t believe we can differentiate. I won’t lie. My response before getting involved with SERVE would have been, ‘It’s not our problem; let their government look after it.’ That was a cop out on my part. We have a civic responsibility to care for everyone, especially the vulnerable, in our society no matter if they are one mile or 1,001 miles away.
We live in a consumerist society. It is non-stop. Will all these trimmings make us happy? I’ve begun to reflect on what the wise man spoke of. Do I really want all those job promotions, the big car? What good will this material wealth be when I look back on my achievements in life? Does true happiness comes from within? Maybe being of service to others gives true fulfillment, much more than the latest offerings of the consumerist society.
This article won’t change the world. It will probably be the lining for tomorrow’s dustbin. If what I say connects with just one person, I will be happy. I am not asking everyone to travel thousands of miles. There are many wonderful local community organisations that could do with our help. What was the answer to the wise man’s question? Come back to me in 50 years time. The clock is ticking. Go forth and SERVE!
SERVE is an Irish development and volunteer organisation based at the Ballybane Enterprise Centre, Galway. Phone 091-781231 or email email@example.com.