It was in 1963, when as a 7-year-old, I heard those immortal words of President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I had probably heard these words before. However, it was not until President Kennedy’s death that it really made an impression on me. The idea that it takes the effort of everyone to make our county and this world a better place started to take root.
My volunteer efforts over the years are sometimes small and misguided. In high school and college, my grades suffered because I believed in being involved more than I believed in cracking the books. My twenties could be described as, professional graduate student, bartender, and volunteer firemen. Even my selected career, Civil and Environmental Engineering, has its foundation in “community service.” I might occasionally volunteer at a science center, or help out during the local public broadcasting station fund drives, or work for various social organizations. As I got older, the desire to really contribute became more important. It became a priority to volunteer within professional and technical organizations with the objective of improving education and technology that could benefit the public and the environment.
All this volunteering brought about an emotion rarely associated with doing something you know is good, “guilt.” Am I doing enough, or doing too much? You can even get a little angry at your friends for criticizing you for doing so much volunteer work. However, the people who criticize may rarely volunteer their time, and you realize they may not understand the importance of volunteering. Eventually, you select a path and accept there is a limit to what you can do.
During a recent dinner party in which I cooked to raise money for a local school for the deaf and blind, a friend made a comment that when we were younger there was a belief we could change the world. He went on to state that as we got older, that desire or ability to change the world became unrealistic. People certainly have different perceptions about making an impact on our world. It is a rare person who can change the world by simply acting alone. I am currently working on a committee of highly educated civil engineers seeking to improve the academic and experience requirements of future civil engineers, which should ultimately benefit the public and the environment. Considering my early educational history, I sit among these colleagues and wonder what gives me the right to be here? My only answer is my history as a volunteer, and the willingness to volunteer my time once more.
I do not know if President Kennedy knew when he spoke those words that it would still inspire countless people, over forty-five years later, to donate a portion of their life to improve the lives of others. What I do know is that being a volunteer is one of those beliefs worthy of a lifetime of effort.