Forced labor with a smile
I hate being forced to do things. When I was in high school at Bishop Ireton in northern Virginia, every senior had to complete 40 hours of volunteer work to graduate. Being forced to help others to graduate? I thought this was ridiculous. I signed up to help out at an assisted-living home called Sunrise.
At first, working with the elderly was tough. My last living grandparent passed away when I was 12, so I didn't remember what it was like to be around the elderly. It involved lots of bingo calling, wheeling people from room to room and helping feed people. As time passed, I got close to the folks at Sunrise and looked forward to going there.
Working occasional weekends at Sunrise didn't fulfill my hours fast enough. So, I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., twice in the morning before school. This meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. to be there to serve by 6. Working at the soup kitchen was fun, but getting up so early was a tough for a high school senior. This still didn't fulfill my requirement.
I shared my dilemma with a priest at my high school. He suggested that I take a community service trip to Philadelphia during spring break. I didn't like the idea of working while all the other seniors were having fun in places like Florida and Europe, but I was running out of time and options.
I gave up spring break to work at the St. Francis Inn, a homeless shelter in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly. Our group of nine arrived, met the staff and volunteered for duties. My first day I worked as waitress and a runner. I sat with people, took their drink orders and served their meals.
At first, I was a nervous about being around homeless people. But as the days passed, I learned their stories. Not all were homeless. Some were at the end of their welfare checks. Others just came by for a free meal. One man proposed to me, even after learning I was taken.
I came to love the people I served. They weren't just homeless people; they were Carter, Mike, Jane — real people like you and me. After graduating from high school, I learned that helping people was what I wanted to do with my life.
In college, I took more service trips to Peru and Philadelphia again and worked in soup kitchens in Baltimore and Gettysburg, Pa.
Now, I'm married and still volunteer to help out in my community. The real perk is now my husband can join me. I hated doing community service in high school to graduate, but without that requirement, I wouldn't have realized the joy of helping people.
Angie Gilchrist, 25, is a Somerville resident who works as a copy editor at THE DECATUR DAILY.