AmeriCorps VISTA member Elliott Dionisio has served as our Days of Service Specialist for the better part of a year, shepherding groups and teams of volunteers through registration and preparing them for our annual events, Celebration of Service and Serve-a-thon. Elliott leaves us to begin law school later this week, but first we asked him to share his takeaways from a year of dedicated service with you.
For the last seven years, I’ve dedicated a part of my life to service (the first five casually along with school and work, and the last two full-time through AmeriCorps). I’ve always made a space for service in my life due in part to the oft-repeated axiom that there exist folks much less fortunate and much more in need than myself. Community service has been a way for me to pay forward the blessings I’ve received over my life. To me, these are truisms—whether I think of service on these terms is another story.

The results I gain from service are much different. After any given service project, I don’t walk away with an air of satisfaction or vindication. I don’t even walk away and reflect on the quantifiables (how many bowls of soup served, goods packaged, dogs walked, etc). Perhaps I once did, but I can’t remember the me then; maybe for me service has lost the luster of fulfillment from the earlier days. I walk away (and return soon after) knowing service to be a good way to spend my time. My motives are actually somewhat momentary—I’m not looking to shape a future legacy, I just like to be sure that I’m living my life to its fullest potential. And part of me understands that to be helping other human beings.

This last point is not one I tread over lightly; in fact, if service has had one enduring impact on me, it is that my worldview is much more empathetic to other human beings. Our upbringing and experiences do much to determine the cast of characters in our lives, and if Sociology is any guide we usually spend our lives with people ‘like’ ourselves. But service has helped me transcend those barriers. I have come to believe (as I have witnessed) that no matter where one falls on the socioeconomic scale, he has the same thoughts, feelings, concerns, and hopes as the next man. We all become hungry. We all want to feel valued. We all want to be loved. As the saying goes, we all ‘put our pants on one leg at a time.’ Service has helped me to be cognizant of this constantly.

This isn’t difficult to understand, but living the actual life is more astounding. I find myself paying respect to people with no preconditions. Respect shines through in the ways you speak and act towards others, but I take it one step forward in the ways I think about others. I subconsciously attempt to meet another person on his or her level when conversing with them. And when I hear off-color jokes directed at strangers, I know my judgment isn’t sufficient enough to react to them. Being around so many people of so many different strata—as I am through volunteering—has had the effect of neutralizing my preconceptions. 

Service has taught me that as different as we all are, we’re also very much the same. I say ‘taught’ in a reflexive sense, because this transformation crept upon me unnoticed. At a service project or outside a service project, people matter and people make the difference—all day, every day. Service has not only changed my life, but my lifestyle. And as much as your serve too, you may realize the same.