I’ve been on the board of directors for a group called Choice Humanitarian for thirteen years, and am now on their advisory board. Every year when my kids were growing up we would take trips to Guatemala, into the villages where there is no running water, no electricity and no doctors. We would spend weeks there providing medical care and helping them to build water systems and schools. It was tough work, but when I ask my children about their greatest memories so far in their lives, without fail, all of them reference their experiences serving the Guatemalans. In fact, when I asked my daughter what she wanted for a high school graduation gift, she asked if we could take another trip to Guatemala.
I think when you have a 17 year old girl who says that, it really says something about the power of service. Here we went into a place where they didn’t even speak Spanish, they speak a Mayan dialect, and what surprised me the very firs time that we took a group into the very deep forest there was that even though no one spoke their dialect, what it really came down to was the universal language of love. You don’t need to know each other’s spoken tongue, but that love and just the fact that we were there to serve them immediately bonded us.
We went into these very poverty stricken communities hoping to bring them a wealth of health, and we found that they were far more wealthy than we were in the most important things in life, like loving, serving each other and compassion. That sticks with me to this day. When you go and serve someone you always come away with more than you gave. You always come away richer from the experience.
People often think that self worth and self confidence comes from awards that people earn, prizes or accomplishments, but in actuality self confidence comes from serving others and knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life. Realizing that even though you’re a single individual, you can make a big impact on people and on a community. And the best thing about service is that you don’t have to travel to Guatemala to make a difference in someone’s life. You can make a difference in your own community every single day through small acts of kindness and service that leave both you and the people you serve richer and happier.
One of my favorite quotes is on my office wall, and it states: “To the world you may be only one person, but to one person you may be the world.” Oftentimes you might think, “I can’t make a difference, I’m only one person, there’s nothing I can do,” but in reality, there’s a lot that you can do. Something as simple as a kind word to a cashier or a smile to a stranger on the street, just acknowledging other people and their worth, is huge.
When I was in junior high we moved to a new area in the middle of the school year. I found myself in a big new school, not knowing anybody, but during those first few weeks there was one girl in particular who didn’t know me, but she would say “hi” and smile, and that was enough to make me feel like I was going to be ok. It cost her nothing, but it meant the world to me.
As you celebrate the holidays and begin to think about the person you want to be in the coming year, consider how acts of service large and small can make an impact on the people in your life. Even a simple habit like saying thank-you with a smile or letting one person each day know how much they mean to you can change a person’s day, and can increase your own feelings of self-worth and efficacy. If you are feeling powerless in your own life, there is no better way to realize the difference you can make.