By Joelyn Betz
This past New Year’s Eve I wasn’t feeling great, so I pulled the tired parent card and went to bed early that night.
As the rest of the family rang in the New Year, I was drifting off into my last decent sleep for many weeks to come. January 1, 2019, I awoke to the world violently spinning inside my brain. What I hoped would be just a familiar 12-24 hour visit by my usually biannual guest, aka vertigo, turned into weeks and months of disabling misery. Who knew a nasty little virus could invade my inner ear and render me homebound, if not bed-bound for weeks on end? Not this gal. Not how I imagined my new year starting, to be sure.
My friends and church community rallied around me in the ensuing weeks, offering a variety of selfless services: everything from meals for my family, to offering to come take down my Christmas decorations, clean my house, and even a physical therapist friend making a house call to do an intensive evaluation of my symptoms, for free. Friends drove me to doctor appointments, shopped for me, and checked in on me daily. It was a beautiful silver lining to my otherwise miserable state. It’s rarely easy to accept that kind of service from others, especially over a prolonged period, but it can become an excellent catalyst for a spirit of paying it forward. Unable to read, drive, be vertical for more than an hour or two at a time and entirely Netflix and Audible-ed out, I was desperate to be productive, to do something, anything.
Four years ago I was asked by my church leaders to be a volunteer, local representative for a relatively new, free online tool my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had created.
The website JustServe.org facilitates connections between people wanting to volunteer in the community, and local nonprofits looking for volunteers. JustServe.org was new to me at the time, and relatively new to the Eagle River-Chugiak area. What was once a test program in a few western states in the US has now grown to serve communities in North, Central, and South America, Australia and Great Britain. Major organizations like the San Diego Padres, the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association, have found a successful partnership with Just Serve and volunteers across the globe.
Not sure what I could even manage with my current limited abilities, I went to the Just Serve app on my smartphone, and started looking over the volunteer opportunities in our community. There were about 40-50 within the Anchorage/Eagle River/Chugiak/Wasilla area. As I read the volunteer needs of each non-profit that had posted there, I came across an opportunity at the My House organization in Wasilla that fit my abilities and schedule. They needed food packs to give to at-risk teens who are homeless and hungry. The packs were a simple combination of a gallon size Ziploc bag and quick, easy food items for a day’s worth of meals. I had the funds to purchase the items and a ridiculous amount of time on my hands, so even if I could only put together a couple of packs a day, I’d still be doing something!
I couldn’t get to the store on my own, but daily, people from my congregation were asking if there was anything they could do for me.
I posted a brief rundown of what I needed for my service project on our local church Facebook page, and I asked if anyone possibly help me with the shopping end of things. I also offered to place a collection bin on my front porch for anyone wanting to donate food items I could add to the packs.
Within a few days, my friends and neighbors came through in a big way. Within a week I had enough supplies to create 28 full food packets, as well as some bulk items that I could also donate to My House. I literally could only sit up and focus long enough to do a few packets a day, but the fact that I, who had been the recent recipient of so much kind service, was able to pay that forward in some small way made a world of difference to my sequestered and somewhat depressed self. A couple of weeks later, when I could finally drive on my own, I was able to deliver the food packets to My House. I was greeted with such warmth and kindness by the staff there, some of whom are homeless teens learning valuable job skills. As I drove away that day, I was so filled with love and gratitude for our community and for the invaluable opportunity I’ve had to work with so many local non-profits in Eagle River and Chugiak as I’ve helped them connect with local volunteers through JustServe.org.
Russell M. Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has said, “Our highest priorities in life are to love God and to love our neighbors,” as clearly evidenced by offering this fantastic gift of Just Serve to communities around the world.
There are now approximately 425,000 registered users, and 60,000 posted service opportunities within Just Serve. Opportunities range from individual service projects, like the one I recently participated in, to significant group efforts as seen at the recent Silicon Slopes tech convention in Salt Lake City. Silicon Slopes partnered with Just Serve, Feeding Children Everywhere, and Brainstorm Inc. to bring 5000 volunteers and the 24000 attendees of the 2019 conference together to create 1 million meals for children in need in the United States.
In all my years on this planet, and there’s been quite a few, I’ve not ever seen anything that equals selfless community service for unifying strangers and friends, building bridges across political and socio-economic boundaries and lifting the most vulnerable among us to a place of light and hope. I encourage you to donate those few hours and help our community in whatever way you are able. As the great poet Ralph Waldo Emmerson said, “To leave the world a bit better; … To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”