To Truly Serve Together, The Walls Must Come Down

September 30, 2015
by Jessica Peter

Jessica addresses volunteers at a service project,  July 2015.
Jessica addresses volunteers at a service project, July 2015.

I’ve worked professionally with volunteers for a decade now. I meet a lot of people. Hundreds. Some I see every day, and others every now and then. Many others I just see once and never again.

It’s my job to give them missions, find tasks that suit their talents, work alongside them, even become their friends. They are all just people looking for a little fulfillment or a sense of purpose. They serve, they get warm fuzzies, and they carry on with their lives.

Now I work for The Mission Continues. The bulk of our volunteers are veterans, and some of them are figuring out what’s next. Which doesn’t sound too different than most people I know. You don’t have to return from a battlefield or leave the military to be uncertain about what the future will bring.

But when I tell people that I help put veterans in a position to improve their communities, I typically get two types of responses.

The first? Hero worship.

Don’t get me wrong, service is a sacrifice and veterans deserve respect. They’re also our neighbors in the community and friends at the PTA meeting–ordinary Americans called to do extraordinary things at one point in their lives. Yet the hero ethos allows us to erase their experience and box them up to gather dust like so many old trophies. If we stand and applaud at the airport, our work is done.

Veteran and non-veteran volunteers work together during the Summer Service Slam in East St. Louis, a project planned by Jessica, August 2015.
Veteran and non-veteran volunteers work together during the Summer Service Slam in East St. Louis, a project planned by Jessica, August 2015.

The second response is always delivered quickly, with eyebrows raised. “Are they right in head?” “Oh man, you got any crazy ones?” Post-traumatic stress is a very real challenge, but these responses are ludicrous.

The first question about my volunteers shouldn’t be whether they are constantly on the edge of losing it like Amber’s partner on NBC’s Parenthood or Terry from True Blood. They returned from Iraq and spend entire story arcs losing grip in one way or another. When you see these tropes repeated again and again on prime time, you start to see where that attitude is coming from.

The veterans I meet are individuals with one thing in common. They have served and they want to continue serving. No one is making them show up for the project. They don’t want a standing ovation, or tickets to a baseball game. They want enough shovels, drill bits, and lumber to accomplish the mission and make an impact. They want to finish the job.

You know who else wants to get the job done? Non-veterans who serve in Americorps, Peace Corps, weekend carpenters at Habitat for Humanity, volunteer firefighters, and reading tutors. Connecting veterans to each other, and to a community of non-veterans who share their passion for service is a no-brainer. Serving with someone builds community, teaches empathy, and moves the needle towards the goal.

It’s not hard for me to see the symmetry. My own story of service is has foundations in both worlds. Many of my family members served in the military, and many more were dedicated public servants or chronic volunteers.

As the head of the special education department in a small town, my mother was nothing if not a servant to her community and her students. My father spent over 25 years in service to the farmers of Southern Indiana, young and old. Their legacy of service lives with me just as my grandfather’s time in the Army.

Both types of service gave me a more complete understanding of commitment to others.

Volunteers remove debris at Ft. Wadsworth National Park on a project planned by Jessica, September 12, 2015.
Volunteers remove debris at Ft. Wadsworth National Park on a project planned by Jessica, September 12, 2015.

If we cut out the social expectations, the stereotypes, and preconceived notions, these are all people who served. They dedicated themselves to finding a way to help, to protect people, and to leave things better than they found them.

I see each of my volunteers for this potential. Here is a different set of skills, a lived experience that will bring a depth of knowledge to this undertaking. The best way to accomplish any mission is to work together, even if we have to tear down some barriers in the process.

Jessica Peter is an Americorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team alum and a national resource specialist at The Mission Continues.

Want to work alongside people like Jess and solve your community’s biggest challenges? Join a service platoon in your area.

3 Replies to “To Truly Serve Together, The Walls Must Come Down”

  1. Great planning on that Ft. Wadsworth Service Project, you have inspired me to find a service project similar to yours in Ponce Inlet, FL and who knows maybe I will find some Ponce De Leon artifacts.

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