Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

The importance of being humble

It was a chilly, lethargic morning. There I stood, facing an enemy I knew I couldn’t beat: a dirty trash can. I could tell it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, possibly months. Layers upon layers of filth covered both the inside and outside of the 3-foot tall gray cylinder. I looked over at my partner, just one of the group assigned to clean trash cans, and saw the disgust tugging at the corners of his mouth. I imagined that his expression mirrored mine. Nonetheless, this was the task given to us, and I told myself I would do it with a smile. With this resolution in mind, I fixed a grin on my face and plunged my scraper into the muck.

This was my experience this weekend with Engage 360, a volunteer organization dedicated to developing a strong relationship with the surrounding St. Louis community. It focuses mostly on the 22nd Ward, a low-income area of St. Louis roughly a five-minute drive from campus. Hope House, a transitional housing community, is located in this neighborhood, and it was here that I found myself this past Saturday morning, scraper and steel wool in hand.

I must confess, when I volunteered to join the trip, I did not imagine that I would be cleaning trash cans. I had done numerous service projects before, and many involved cleaning and organization of relatively unseemly areas. But never before had I ever had to scrub a filthy trash can. For a moment, it seemed not only pointless (the trash cans were normally lined with trash bags; few of the tenants would ever notice or perhaps appreciate the cleanliness of the inside of a trash can) but also somewhat degrading. Next to me, a friend of mine began to clean without any complaint or hesitation.

And that’s when it hit me.

What business did I have thinking myself too superior to clean the inside of a trash can? What made me so different from the people I was here to serve? A simple change of circumstance could see me as one of the tenants at Hope House. I was no better, nor was I entitled to a “glamorous” volunteer job. My friend had understood this immediately; when asked to meet a need, he did so without complaint.

This service-minded mentality is somewhat rare in today’s society. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, only 26 percent of the American population did volunteer work. While this is a large amount of people (roughly 64 million people), that still leaves another 74 percent of the population that does not volunteer.

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone has both the opportunity and the means to volunteer both time and effort. I also am not naive enough to believe that all people who choose not to volunteer have valid reasons not to volunteer, particularly high school and college-aged individuals. According to the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the lowest percentage of volunteers comes from this age group—our age group. I cannot make a blanket statement that everyone should and must volunteer; not everyone has the time or the ability to do feasibly. However, I can say that when the fortunate refuse to help those less fortunate because of a selfish desire to avoid getting their hands dirty (a desire I experienced), they fail in their ethical responsibilities as a human being.

A key reason that many people don’t volunteer is because of a lack of information. If you’re looking for an organization in which to get involved, check out Engage 360. Its page also contains more information on the 22nd Ward. I encourage you to get involved with Engage 360 or to find your own charity. They’re often no further than a quick Internet search away. Either way, get involved; just like with my experience, it’s often a lot more fun than you think it will be.


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  • KFF says:

    “they fail in their ethical responsibilities as a human being?” Simmer down there, bucko, and stop using the word “ethical” to throw guilt at people. Ethical behavior is not an objective standard; it is a description of how people–you, in this case–would like other people to behave. I don’t really give a damn what you want from me, and as you’ve pointed out, I’m not really alone.

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    • Wow says:

      “Simmer down”? “Bucko”?

      What inspired you to respond so rudely to someone who was just trying to write an article about the importance of helping others? If you want to make a point, you have every right to do so. But, I must say, I find your tone and totally unnecessary and uncalled for.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878