September 17, 2007
Volunteering highlights our nobility
Portia allen IS A PROGRAM ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT IN THE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has conveyed: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Simple truth indeed, however, it took me quite a long time to truly comprehend this profound fact — a fact that my grandmother, Mrs. Essie Mae (Woods) Pete, always seemed to know and live effortlessly. As an adolescent, I remember clearly her countless acts of compassion. Our home, for example, always was open to a very close relative who, at the time, faced grave drug addiction and homelessness. I readily recall, in fact, that on many occasions, she happily provided him with what he always asked for: a shower, some hot food and clean clothes.
At the time, I did not grasp the complexity of the situation (like why my relative did not live with us or someone else), nor did I comprehend why my grandmother gave to him in the way she did. Indeed, this type of compassion was still a significant lesson I had to learn. It also would become symbolic of a key to me that, when used, could directly make a positive impact on our world. Little did I know how profound a lesson this was.
As my story goes, my lesson started with a village named Abonsuaso, which is located in the Ahafo Ano North District of Ghana, West Africa, and a commitment to work with the Abonsuaso community to build and equip a library. What brought me to Ghana on New Year’s Eve 1994 was my commitment to give back to my ancestral homeland, Africa. Though I could not directly trace my heritage back to a particular African country, I felt strongly about volunteering there. So when I was accepted to study for a semester at the University of Ghana through the Council on International Educational Exchange, I jumped immediately at the opportunity.
The great bonus, however, was that I met Kofi Peprah. He introduced me to the Abonsuaso community, and put in motion my volunteer dreams. A year later, the Yaa Asantewaa Amy Garvey Library was opened. All thanks, in part, to Kofi, an inheritance bequeathed to me by my grandmother, and countless communities in Ghana and the U.S.A. who donated time, resources and books to the library.
Ironic then that volunteering was a challenge to me during this time. Yet the more I thought about it, even when my personal challenges seemed to outweigh everything else, one thing became and remained very clear to me: I always would volunteer when and where I could.
So upon my departure from Ghana in late January 1997, I continued to volunteer. Doing so is such a connecting factor for me. Volunteering, after all, is what so many of us do, whether broadcast via headline news or known only among ourselves. It is a gift we give and receive daily. Take, for example, recent Emory graduate Robbie Brown ’07C, recipient of Emory’s 2007 McMullan Award, who selflessly gave $20,000 (a no-strings-attached gift that accompanied his award) to an orphanage in India. The volunteering aspect here: time and capital resources that will help purchase a permanent building for the Ashraya Initiative for Children.
There’s more of course, like Global Field Experiences, which allows students to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve gained through their first year at the Rollins School of Public Health in real-life settings worldwide. A number of my friends have completed the program; what I marvel at always is the volunteer hours they altruistically have given.
Many books also have been written on this subject, a number of which may be borrowed from the Woodruff Library. Two on my to-read list are “Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research” and “The Values of Volunteering: Cross-cultural Perspectives.” When former President Bill Clinton’s book titled “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World” hits the bookstores, I can’t wait to pick it up.
To me, there is something about volunteering that is just cool, fantastic and absolutely amazing. One can feel so alive while volunteering and so connected to what we refer to as humanity. Equally so, it is an act of offering and an act of being offered to — a sense of purpose.
Before, I referenced the idea of compassion as being a key. What I have found is this key may be likened to a generosity of spirit, hospitality and charitableness. This type of magnanimity, therein, is a key that unlocks countless doors for me and, I hope, for you too.
For instance, I volunteer at The Carter Center every third Saturday and as I can squeeze in more time, I have the privilege of working in the Center’s gardens. It’s quite rewarding planting tulip bulbs or even just pulling weeds, especially when as one colleague put it, “pulling weeds is our small way of waging peace and fighting disease.”
Another example is a two-week volunteer opportunity I undertook in June to visit Kenya to conduct a project evaluation for PATHWAYS Leadership for Progress. Thanks to PATHWAYS, I saw hands-on ways in which scholarship recipients use their grant awards for community service projects.
I also volunteer as a mentor with Refugee Family Services and participate in the Niger Delta Justice Network. RFS is based in Stone Mountain and serves refugee and immigrant families in the metro Atlanta area, while NDJN is a student-led initiative aimed at creating awareness within and beyond the Emory community about the extreme poverty of the indigenous people of the Niger Delta.
Earlier I quoted His Holiness’ perspective about compassion to link the very idea of compassion with that of volunteering — magnanimity’s key.
It suggests volunteering can move one to make countless dreams come true; challenge the status quo and challenge one’s self; be that life-saver as well as that life to be saved; and be that noble act, that can and will highlight the nobility in us all.
A profound lesson learned, especially for me.
To find out more about volunteering, visit Volunteer Emory at http://www.volunteer.emory.edu/.