Growth and progress feel so slow when you’re impatient to achieve a goal. That’s why it’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since I first set out on this path. Ten years that now feel, in retrospect, like they flew by. A third of my life. A third. In many ways I still feel like a child, wandering around, guessing at right answers, trying until I get it right, and often flopping. And in many other ways I feel like a wise old soul, looking back fondly (and with some amusement) at my fumbling 21 year old self. The one who put off going back to school to take off on a life-changing journey to change the world.
On September 2, 2004 — exactly ten years ago — my best friend Heather and I stepped into my 2003 Chevy Cavalier, packed to the brim with clothing and foodstuffs, and drove west.
The Volunteer Road Trip
Before Facebook and Twitter were things, before either of us had any sense of nonprofit marketing or budgeting or fundraising, we left with about a thousand dollars in our collective pocket on a road trip around the country to do good. Glowing with idealism, we defined our mission: To change the world by spreading the message that people should help each other and causes in need. We’d do this by volunteering in every state we visited, learning from nonprofit and community leaders as we went, while proclaiming to strangers and friends we encountered along the way that if everyone rose up to get involved, we could truly alter humanity’s course.
We drove west through Tennessee and Kentucky, stopping to visit family in Detroit. We continued our path, staying with a friend of Heather’s in Chicago, where we picked up a third and unexpected traveler who, inspired, quit his job and came along. We picked up yet another fellow who traveled from Canada, then journeyed ahead, traversing plains and mountains and rainy Seattle. In California we stayed with my grandma and my cousin on my dad’s side hopped on board.
Now on the other side of the country, there were five of us on our volunteer journey. Together we served food at charity events, walked shelter dogs, weeded community gardens, sold popcorn to raise funds for a cause, sorted books for kids and more, experiencing just about every kind of volunteering you could imagine. We started running out of money around Arizona, and inevitably had to cut our trip short, arriving back home just in time for Thanksgiving.
Settling back in after our journey, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. It was hard to admit, but we hadn’t exactly changed the world — at least, not in the grandiose way I’d hoped we would. In terms of changing the world, I am not quite sure what I’d pictured; I just figured I’d ‘feel it’ when it happened. Still, we were inspired enough to continue trying here at home. We knew that if we truly felt passionate about our message — as lofty and nebulous as it seemed at that time — that our work was far from over.
So, we launched the nonprofit that eventually became known as Activate Good. It took many years, ideas from new leaders and helpers who contributed to the puzzle, pitfalls and setbacks and finally some successes before we formed our message with greater clarity: We wanted to ‘activate’ hearts and minds to do good. The world we want to see is one in which everyone knows, confidently, that they can tangibly impact the place they live. But more than that: That their confidence will cause them to act. People already care, even if things we see on the news sometimes makes us wonder. They just need to be given more opportunities to exercise that caring. How can bad things in the world possibly stand a chance against people who have that in their hearts?
For Activate Good, this passion, this action takes the form of volunteering. That’s because at its core, the meaning of volunteering reaches far beyond the cliche of folks in hairnets serving in soup kitchens or swinging hammers to build homes. At its core, volunteering is the physical manifestation of our love for one another and for the place we live. We love, so we act, and in our case, that action is volunteering. And we don’t volunteer ‘just because’. We do so because we believe volunteers can help solve problems no one else will solve. We volunteer because we’re frustrated, angry, saddened, or inspired, empowered, and emboldened. We also volunteer for a much deeper, more personal reason than many of us even realize: To connect.
I didn’t really know what community felt like until I started volunteering. ‘Community’ isn’t really something you’re aware you’re missing until you’ve experienced it. But we all secretly long for it, even if we can’t really define what it is we think we need. I’ve come to believe, through volunteering, that ‘community’ involves developing and constantly practicing the ability to see beyond peoples’ shells, into a vulnerable core, and recognizing that therein lies another who shares your need to belong. And finally, to earn that belonging together by contributing to a common cause. This applies to the folks volunteers help, and to fellow volunteers themselves.
Volunteering and Building Community
It took several years of distance and reflection after the road trip before I realized that this epiphany — that the key to changing the world was in giving others the chance to experience ‘community’ — had been among the deepest impacts of the journey. We set off, strangers in strange places, and found ourselves at home where ever we landed. Throughout the road trip, we trusted strangers numerous times. We formed bonds, often through volunteering. Though we had to leave one place after not too long to head to another, we’d experienced community, and all because of our volunteer mission. We even stay in touch with some of the folks we met back then to this day.
Ten years after the start of our volunteer road trip and far from the end of our journey overall, I think I’ve started to ‘feel’ it. I don’t see the finished picture yet, but what I see so far, I know to be the start of changing the world. It’s not grandiose how I thought it would be years ago. It’s small. It’s a little electric current zipping from one conductor to the next. And it takes a long time. But if there’s something else I’ve learned after ten years, it’s patience.