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Jakarta Post

Community service or self-service?

  • Sabrina Hartono
    Sabrina Hartono

    A self-proclaimed book-geek, semi-foodie and lexicon-lover

Jakarta   /   Tue, June 14, 2016   /  08:18 am
Community service or self-service? Since last year, I have been heavily involved in a lot of service projects and it was through this experience that I’ve come to realize a few things about the true essence of doing “community service”. It’s about building connections. (Shutterstock/*)

Imagine this: The first few rays of morning light are just beginning to peek through your bedroom window. You toss a little to the other side of your bed and bundle yourself up in your soft fluffy blanket, and drift into another scene in Dreamland. 
Suddenly, there is a loud, incessant screech erupting from the opposite end of your bed! Groggily, you reach for the obnoxious time bomb interrupting your slumber; doesn’t your alarm clock understand that you need your beauty sleep? Blinking the stars out of your eyes, you see a reminder pop up on your home screen: “Service outing.” 
Oh, that’s right! It’s service Saturday! You groan and maybe whine a little, but you get out of bed anyway and get dressed. You reach the meet-up point with the rest of your group. Together, you guys load the mountain of donations, accumulated in the last two weeks, or maybe some other activity supplies, into the minibus and off you go to your service site. 
There, you spend a few hours playing games with some orphan children. Or maybe you’re building houses for an impoverished village. Or maybe you’re doing something as simple as passing donations over to an elderly home. 
At the end of the day, you feel good. You’ve donated so much grain, so much food stocks; you’ve bought them school supplies; you revamped their entire house…
Deep down, you’re also glad for the CAS hours that you’re getting. You’re also glad for another activity to add to “leadership roles” on your resume. And, as a bonus, maybe your project will earn the attention of the global—or international—community via social media.
Admit it. At one point or another, we’ve all had that thought poking at the back of our minds.
I was among the people who, initially, thought service projects to be a chore. Sure, they can be enjoyable when you’re doing it with friends. But we think about it, aren’t service projects “self-serving”? We go out to do “good” in the society, but it’s ultimately for our own ends.
Since last year, I have been heavily involved in a lot of service projects and it was through this experience that I’ve come to realize a few things about the true essence of doing “community service”.
It’s about building connections.
Service projects are different to disaster relief efforts. When we do service projects, it’s much more meaningful to stick with a particular partner group than hop around every week to another group elsewhere. 
After building the foundation of a house in a Sunter village or donating school supplies to an orphanage, what happens next? Don’t the villagers need to furnish their house? Restock supplies? What about the children? Sure, some of them may go to school with proper pencils, erasers, and rulers, but why not start teaching them something not taught at school? English, perhaps?
Continuous interaction with the same group of people allows us to see the progress in their growth and that adds meaning to our efforts. Even deeper than sticking with one group, why not even partner up with a “buddy” from that group? The one-on-one connection sparks a sense of “emotional investment” that propels you to want the child to grow into a better version of itself. And this cultivates deeper passion when doing our service activities. 
Building connections is not limited to broadening friendship networks; it’s also re-connecting to people from other social classes. Personal relationships are when the simple act of an introverted child with autism takes the initiative to say hello to you before you approach her can give you a sense of pride and happiness. 
We experience personal growth too.
Earlier, we talked about growth in the other party. But service also means growing together with the group you are working with, in different ways. 
Engaging in volunteer work means getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to meet a myriad of personalities. Collaborating with so many people means that you will need to adapt, your patience will be tested and sometimes, you might even be changed—for the better. 
When we’re doing service, we shouldn’t have the mentality that we are “above” the people we are working with. As the name suggests, we think that we’re doing the community a “service,” some favor, and unthinkingly view the people we work with as below us, and hence we don’t even consider the notion that we could learn something from them just as they learn from us. 
Aside from the basic skills of leadership, teamwork, and perseverance that come from most group projects, service projects develop our patience and empathy. Interacting with the less fortunate brings about feelings of appreciation, or at the very least, reminds us of our blessings. And by being reminded to be appreciative, we remember to be patient and understanding toward the people we work with. That way, we (hopefully) overcome bad habits like our quick temper or being ignorant.
It all comes down to sustainability.
That said, the heart of service lies in the idea of sustainability. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is equip people with skills.
There’s a proverb that captured this sentiment perfectly: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach the man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What good is a one-off donation if there is no follow-up to your initial efforts? We want the people we worked with to no longer remain dependent on our help. Yes, that means that there will be an “end” to our time with a particular group. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot spread our influence to another group. 
Setting up a library in a rural village is great, but we need to take it one step further to educate the villagers on how to maintain the library and then follow up after a year by adding more books to the collection. Once they can sustain their library on their own, then we can move on to another village and repeat the same process for them.
It’s about them. If we want to instigate change in the community, it’s attacking the problem from its roots; that’s how we achieve sustainability. Organizing a mass garbage clean-up is great, but educating the public on proper garbage disposal is even better. Host a workshop, explain to the community the detrimental effects of littering on the environment as well as on our health, and then invite them to join in the garbage clean-up together with you. 
We bring about change when people change their mindsets and their habits, and to do that, we need to figure out the underlying problems and formulate plans to deal with those fundamental problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting people base their community service solely on self-interest, nor am I undermining the value of any volunteer work. The fact is that community service projects are mutualistic in nature; both parties should benefit from the project. But the gains that we are focusing on should not solely be extrinsic; college applications, recognition from the community and praise are all secondary benefits. It’s not about the amount of money we raise, it’s not about the quantity of participant turn-up, it’s not about the awards the project attracts. 
Of course, all that is part of the overall experience and a way to quantify the fruits of your efforts. But the impact of our service extends beyond that: it’s about the people we work with—how their wealth of knowledge increases, how the quality of their house improves, how we make them feel. 
During your next service endeavor, take the time to re-evaluate why you’re dedicating hours of your life organizing a garbage clean-up, going on a one-time house build or donating food and medicine supplies—is it community service or self-service?



A self-proclaimed book-geek, semi-foodie and lexicon-lover, Sabrina Hartono is a 17-year-old student living in Jakarta. She loves history, literature, chemistry, not-really maths and waffles. An aspiring writer, she has started with her pilot project, "Forgotten Voices", which you can find out more about on

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.