My most recent lesson learned is that giving can be addictive. Sadly, it’s taken me until age 44 to discover that.
Much as I would love to identify myself as a generous person, I can’t honestly say I am. I donate to various charities each year. I volunteer at my daughter’s school. I generally think kind thoughts about people. But true, heartfelt generosity often alludes me, especially if it’s going to take me outside my comfort zone.
But this month, I learned something about giving. I’m fortunate to work for a college that has an annual community day during which the campus is shut down so students, faculty and staff can volunteer. More than 400 of us headed to one of more than two dozen sites in the Milwaukee area.
I spent the day at Hunger Task Force Farm (a 200-acre farm that supplies fresh produce to food pantries), where I harvested acorn squash. With about 30 volunteers tossing squash onto two conveyor belts hooked to a tractor, it initially didn’t seem like any of us was doing all that much.
Then we got to the end of the field and saw the huge bins filled to the top. The farmers estimated our harvest at 8,000 pounds. Not bad for fewer than two hours work. There amid mounds and mounds of squash was proof that what may seem like a small thing, can make a huge difference.
A few days later, we had our big Fall Fest, and I was one of two staff members assigned to work the alumnae community day. A small group of us would be participating in a larger block build called Shevitalize, during which we would repair and beautify homes in a neighborhood that has suffered from high crime and poverty but is undergoing a revitalization effort.
Though I was excited to participate, I’m not gonna lie, forcing myself out of bed at 6 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday was brutal. The work site being just four miles from my house made it a bit easier. But when I arrived, I got a nice dose of what life is like on the other side of the river that divides our neighborhoods.
To keep us safe, there would be volunteers working security and three police officers patrolling the two-block area. Um, okay. Anyone else a little nervous?
Then we went to our assigned house and met the homeowner who had lived in her house for 38 years. On the surface, we didn’t have a damn thing in common. Hazel: a 70 year-old black woman living in the urban core her entire life. Me: a middle-aged white woman who grew up in a small town and loves the city but still gets nervous outside her bubble.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked Hazel about her house. It was built in the mid-1920s, the same time period as mine. We talked about how we both loved the trim and the built-in shelves of old houses. When I commented on her hostas alongside the house, she told me how she likes the plants but hates the flowers that grew out of them. Same here — they always seem like ugly, straggly weeds to me.
Over the course of the day, I and three others painted the walls, trim and doors in two bedrooms and a hallway. Others stained a lengthy fence in the backyard and added stones and mulch to garden areas, while a couple of brave souls installed a new vanity and toilet in the bathroom. Fortunately, the rain let up until it was cleanup time, so we were able to finish most of the tasks on the long list of improvements.
When I hugged Hazel at the end of the day, she no longer felt like a complete stranger. When I told her it was so much more fun to work on someone else’s home than to work on your own, I meant it. I felt honored to have been invited into her home.
Despite being physically exhausted, having ruined my jeans when I brushed against a newly painted wall and being soaked in a downpour as I ran to my car, joy permeated my entire being.
I felt high in a way I’ve felt only a few times in my life. It was the kind of high you get when you willingly give a piece of yourself to help someone you don’t even know. I think I may have a new addiction.