Saying hello to a passerby, smiling at a child, sharing a motivational meme on social media, carrying the groceries in for your parents, opening the door for a mother with her hands full or the elder slowly approaching, organizing an event for charity, praying for others, befriending the lonely and rejected, donating airline miles to someone so they can attend a funeral far away, being in the audience to celebrate an important milestone; these are the things that add up to service. We are all community members whether it be a geographic community, a professional/social community, or a familial/cultural community, and those memberships have dues that come in the form of service. I have always believed that we are privileged with the responsibility of serving one another and living outside of our own lives. What that service looks like, however, is entirely subjective and malleable. That is the beauty of it.
We can have a conversation with ourselves, searching for what drives us and what inspires us, and then artistically pair that with our talents and gifts before courageously taking action.
Further, a genuinely heartfelt act of service is rarely an image of what we imagined. It morphs into what it needs to be and not what we wanted it to be. In other words, the very act of service means we put aside our ideas and just be there for someone else. The nectar in that process is that the result is precisely what we needed too.
One of my most cherished memories was inspired by service. As a teenager, I competed in the Alaska Miss Teen Pageant. As I was a bush-kid, the idea was exotic, and it meant spending time in Anchorage to shop and do “girly things,” so mom and I filled out all of the necessary paperwork and began the process of looking for a formal dress. Thank God the pageant did not have a swimsuit component since, at 13, my figure was just that: a 13-year-old figure. Nevertheless, it was great fun to replace the dirt on my face from 3-wheeling with make-up, and turn my unique rural experiences into a speech for the talent portion. As someone who advocates against the objectification of girls and women in our world societies, pageants were never on my radar, even as a kid. So, when the opportunity arose for some adventure in this realm, my first question was (besides whether or not I would be parading around on stage in a bathing suit or not), could raise awareness for something worthy or increase my service to others somehow. Alas, I could. Each contestant was required to complete so many hours of volunteer service within their community, properly document the service, and then discuss its merit to a panel of judges during pageant week. Since my Tupperware sales were down for the previous two months, I decided, “What the heck! Lets’ do it!”
Village life, as you can imagine, is quite different than life on the road system or in the Lower 48.
There were no food pantries to volunteer at or animal shelters to help clean, and I had never even heard of a soup kitchen. As far as I was concerned, our house was always the soup kitchen with the seasons determining the smells and tastes: fish soup in the summer, moose and caribou soup in the fall and winter, and vegetable medley in the spring.
So, what in the world would I do to gain my volunteer hours? The answer came to me as I walked the dirt road to a Native elder’s home one day, a walk I had done several times before. Maybe I could use my time at her house as volunteer hours. The idea had not occurred to me before because it was just something I did, something “ordinary.” Who doesn’t help the elderly wash dishes, clean house, and read the Bible to them in Yugtun? What is so special about that? It wasn’t until I submitted my paperwork to the judges’ panel, and described what I did weekly, that I became aware of how the simple act of caring and being there for someone can be priceless for them. For me, it was more an act of filling my days in a way that was also enjoyable. I would sit cross-legged on her living room floor, and she would hand me her Yugtun bible, pointing to where we left off before. As I read aloud, she worked on her cross-stitch or basket-weaving, silently nodding her head as I worked through the pronunciation of the longer words. Her toothless smile would light up the room when someone would pop over to visit and laugh at the pair of us communicating in our unique way, across cultures and races, without a hint of care about what other people thought. Those moments were very instrumental in shaping my multicultural and multilingual identity as I grew. The awkward part came when I asked her to sign the verification of service forms. It was like putting a stamp on an envelope that had already been mailed and received. What would one signature attest to or change? Nothing. It was then I knew service is more than punching a clock or recording a few hours or miles. It has to be heartfelt and useful; it is selfless, and it is responsive to the needs of others.
I continued “volunteering” (visiting my elderly friend) long after the pageant where I became Alaska’s Miss Teen 1st runner-up.
I never explained to her what the form was for or how I used our time together to fill the requirement. Neither did she ask me about it. I am not sure she would have understood, and I was not interested in using the Western construct of pageantry to further the divide between Native and non-Native groups. After discussing the value of my service to the panel, I was eager to drop the title and get back to my normal life doing what I love to do: spread love. My friend had already demonstrated great service to me by allowing me into her home, and by sitting with me while I read the Yugtun Bible aloud. My contribution was secondary to that in my mind. Those 45 hours have grown exponentially over the years within my heart. The way I use them today may look differently (sans forms), but I’m still that girl attempting new things and looking for the next toothless smile.