If I Won't Do It, Who Will?
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
When I entered high school as a freshman, my older brother, a senior, was president of our student council. I wanted to spend my after-school hours playing soccer and hanging out with my friends, and I had no desire to join him in the evening as he put together school activities. It always seemed like too much work.
In late fall of that year, he organized a canned-food drive, where students brought canned food and nonperishable food items to the school, and then the student council distributed them to charities that worked with the less fortunate in our area. Because the weather was getting cold and I had nothing better to do, my brother coaxed me into going along with him to collect and count cans. We spent two hours walking the desolate school halls, going into empty classrooms and slowly lifting piles of canned green beans and ramen noodles. It was tiring work—kind of boring too—and it didn't help when he told me we had to count all the cans. Together, in the space of an evening, we counted over 800 cans and food items.
I wasn't too happy about it until I got home. My brother and I both went off and hit the books, and halfway through my algebra homework something dawned on me. All those cans meant someone would have a full meal who didn't have it before. Those cans could feed several families for weeks, if not months. And in some way, all that food came from him—he was the one responsible for it. I realized that if he hadn't put together the canned-food drive, nothing would have happened. No one would have brought the cans to school, no one would have counted all the food, and some people would have gone to sleep hungry because no one had done anything.
That made me understand that making the world a better place was up to me. It's impossible for one person to give away 800 cans, but it's not hard to persuade 800 people each to bring one can. From then on, I started working on the student council. As a 15-year-old, I didn't have much to give, but in a school with a thousand other students, together we did have something to give. With the other students in my student council, I put together blood drives, homeless shelter work shifts, and countless school and community activities. I was busy most nights of the week, and I stopped playing soccer for the team, but I was happy with what I was doing.
I went away to college with no idea what I wanted to do, and at first it was frightening because my university was so large. With 30,000 other students, how was I to fit in, to find who I was, to matter at all to anyone? I had always been interested in writing, and in the first few weeks I started writing for the university's newspaper. Within a few weeks I was writing front-page stories and balancing my job with the massive amounts of homework I was getting. This continued throughout the year, and beginning my sophomore year, I was completely swept up in college. I became an editor at the newspaper, and had no free time for the kind of service and leadership activities I had enjoyed when I was in high school. When the job ended at the end of that school year, I felt I had worked too much and was definitely missing something.
That summer I worked in a restaurant waiting tables, and in the kitchen the cooks always listened to the local college radio station. Every half an hour or so, the radio station played a commercial for the Peace Corps. I was making a salad once when the commercial came on. One cook said to another, "Peace Corps—you ever thought about doing that?" The other answered, "No, have you?" The first cook responded, "Yeah, I did. I always wanted to do it, but I got too busy. Now I've got a job and kids and I wish I had done it when I was younger."
I had thought about the Peace Corps too, but it never seemed like it was for me. But then I remembered what I had said to myself in high school: If I won't do it, who will? I already knew it wouldn't be the cook in the restaurant. I started looking into the Peace Corps because I knew it was up to me. That year in college I looked at my schedule and found out I could graduate that May and be in the Peace Corps in 10 months. I was offered the job again at the magazine but I knew it wasn't for me. From then on, I put more work into my classes, and stopped other kinds of working altogether.
To fill in my free time, I did volunteer work. Each week I spent five or six hours at a local boys and girls club tutoring students in reading and writing. It was great—all those things I had learned in high school and college were being used to help raise the grades of a few struggling students. I was happy to do it, and as the year went on I spent as much time as possible at the boys and girls club. I had worked at a lot of jobs over the years but when I was volunteering, it didn't seem like work. I know the students I worked with got a lot out of our time together, but I felt like I was the lucky one. It's hard to explain, but it made me realize that working for others—not for pay, not for me, but to help them and the world we live in—was the best paycheck I ever got.