Barrett: What does service do?



Tom Barrett

The unique quality that distinguishes Villanova from most other universities is its commitment to the local and global community. Not only is this ideal written in the University’s mission statement, but the student body actually takes pride in living up to it. The number of charity and community-based organizations and events is simply unheard of at other schools: we have 5K runs for the fight against hunger, the Special Olympics and Water for Waslala; there are weekly opportunities to tutor and play with inner-city kids in Philadelphia who could use a mentor; the annual Special Olympics Fall Festival is the largest student-run festival in the world; and hundreds of our students choose to spend their spring and fall breaks serving those who are less fortunate.

Hundreds of pictures are posted online after these events. Everyone’s smiling, dancing, laughing, hugging; orphans are being held by nursing majors; athletes are being cheered on by student volunteers. Drastically different worlds collide, and the servers and the served bond over the glimpses they have of each other’s lives.

For most of us students, the warm-and-fuzzy feelings that filled the air on that day we helped out in Philly or that week we spent in Guatemala become lost in nostalgia as we return to the real world of finance and chemistry homework. That moment we felt empowered and connected – the moment we felt like we could actually do something to better the world – becomes nothing but a sentimental image trapped in a photograph. While we make this transition back to everyday life, the suffering that is the everyday life of those we tried to serve remains mostly unchanged. We don’t think about the fact that the man we gave a sandwich to at the soup kitchen will most likely be waiting in that line again. We don’t think about what the lives of the Special Olympics athletes and their families are like for the other 362 days of the year. And we don’t want to think about the fact that while one family may have a new house, there are millions upon millions more around the world who still will not have a place to live when fall break is over.

So all of this brings us back to the question: what good does service really do? While it’s undoubtedly obvious that it’s better to have people serving or giving money than doing absolutely nothing, mere service is far from being a cure-all. It’s like trying to put a band-aid on an axe wound – it might help a little at the time, but there is obviously much more that needs to be done to stop the bleeding. Service and charity, in most cases, can only address immediate needs and do not offer much guarantee of anything long-term. Donating and delivering a meal to a family for Thanksgiving is great, but chances are their plates will be empty again after those leftovers run out.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that so many Villanova students care enough to help others, but it can’t stop once the Campus Ministry vans drop them off back on campus. It’s only natural for us to have those warm high-on-life feelings when serving people to whom life has been less kind, but this should not be the end of service. It is about connecting with another human being on a level that is deeper than class, place of birth or mental capacity and seeing the humanity that we all have in common.

It is about experiencing their struggle as if it were our own and letting this transform us in a way that fundamentally alters the way we live our lives and look at the world. Without opening ourselves up to making the vulnerabilities of those we are seeking to serve our own, our efforts will be in vain and our experiences will become nothing more than scrapbook photos sealed and forgotten in its plastic pages.


Tom Barrett is a junior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].