Life as an Air Force brat meant making new friends every few years. It demanded adjusting to new homes and schools. It required living with separation from my father during long TYDs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his tour in Vietnam. For many children, such a life becomes a hardship, but not for me.
My parents worked hard to provide unconditional love and stability within the framework of continual change. I knew that the world wasn’t always a nice, or safe, place; yet I internalized the belief that people are basically good. Service to our country and to the community became an important cornerstone of my upbringing. My parents volunteered in our schools. My mother helped to establish the Helping Hand program in our neighborhood. My father coached football for the YMCA. Both of my parents volunteered for PTA functions and held offices within the organization. I learned from my parents to measure success in life by the strength of loving relationships and not the amount of my monthly paycheck.
At the age of fifteen, I began volunteering at Northeast Baptist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. I spent so many hours at the hospital as a candy-striper that I won an award at the end of my first year for putting in more than one-hundred hours. I loved every rotation at the hospital. In the office, I answered phones and filed forms. One of my duties included going to each patient to discuss meal options for the day. I loved chatting with so many different people. I learned that even a person in pain and discomfort would put a smile on her face when I entered the room. Some days, my assignment found me in the gift shop. I learned how to run a cash register, do inventory, and help pick out the perfect card or gift. Eventually, my duties extended to the pharmacy. This much coveted rotation meant I’d earned the trust of the director of volunteer services. The summer I spent in service taught me valuable lessons about illness and caring. I learned what it meant to become a member of a team, and how important a simple hug can be when a family suffers loss.
When I went to college at Texas A&M, I didn’t set aside my need to service others. It didn’t take me long to realize that many other college students wanted to volunteer within the Bryan/College Station area. With another friend, we established Student Volunteer Services. Given a small cubical in the MSC, we slowly carved out a reputation with various organizations and with Aggies. SVS became the liaison between the students and organizations. We helped place students into the Big Brother/Big Sister program. We lined up volunteers for different activities sponsored by organizations. We aided students in volunteering in local classrooms, at the library, and at the hospital. My experiences at A&M reinforced my belief that most people are kind and generous.
“I’m a teacher,” one friend used to state matter-of-factly, “I already donate my time and money!” And I’d have to agree. Teaching requires a commitment of time, energy, and financial resources. On my meager salary, I purchased additional supplies for my classroom. My extra time found me writing, typing, printing, and mailing out the PTO newsletter. I sponsored Student Council and the National Junior Honor Society. I coached UIL spellers. I went to work early every morning and stayed late every day. My experiences as an educator didn’t differ from almost all of the other teachers at my schools. I may have received a paycheck every month for my “profession” but nothing repaid the vocation demanded within education.
As a parent, I found myself a Cub Scout leader and Odyssey of the Mind coach during the school year. The demands of work and parenting meant volunteering for other organizations slipped into my summer breaks. Several summers I found myself at Lutheran Social Services, helping with office work initially. Eventually, I sat in on counseling with pregnant mothers as they struggled with decisions on adoption. Again, I found myself serving people during an extremely stressful time of life, and I rediscovered the basic goodness that resides within most people’s hearts.
My life experiences help me hold onto the conviction that more people strive to do good than evil. Between volunteer work and my profession, I rarely heard a parent say, “I want to spend the rest of my life on welfare.” None of my students longed to stay in minimum wage jobs. No one planned to stay mired in drug or alcohol addiction. I worked with many people who admitted they’d made mistakes in life’s choices. They expressed regrets; often wished that they had the know-how or tools necessary to change. Some people try to tell me that I don’t know what people are “really like,” but I think their hardness prevents them from enjoying the best of life. I believe in the goodness of the human soul.
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman