One of the things I'm always game for is to have new experiences - throwing myself (often on a dare) and seeing what happens during the process. So when a representative of Chicago Cares e-mailed me asking if I would be willing to participate in this year's Serve-A-Thon - and cover the event, well....after checking out the website, I simply dove right in.
The Chicago Cares Serve-A-Thon is actually a really good idea: encourage volunteers (either through individual efforts, mobilizing a team of coworkers, and/or driving fundraising efforts) to participate in a random project for one day. It's an effort to mobilize Chicago professionals around "making an impact" - moving them beyond their own experience and provide them an opportunity to improve the greater community. To that end, Chicago Cares assembled a large event, recruiting (and bringing) about 5,000 volunteers to help with projects around the city. In fact, Saturday morning featured free food, people standing around, and Jim Cornielson - the man who sings the National Anthem for the Chicago Blackhawks - kicking things off in style.
(Unfortunately, learning to use my new smartphone meant that I held the camera in the wrong position...and the video didn't come out. Yes, ironic for a person who believes in technology and social good. But I did manage to snap a gallery of photos from last week's Serve-A-Thon, located at the bottom of the page).
Gathering in a series of buses, my colleagues and I soon arrived for our assignment: painting various rooms and line games at McCormick Elementary. We all assembled to volunteer for our various smaller tasks, and I chose to stay outside and paint the pavement.
(Saturday was gorgeous, and quite honestly, I wasn't going to waste a gorgeous day painting inside when I could paint outside)
After two hours, we were called for lunch, and not only had we received donated sandwiches, but several neighborhood volunteers prepared a very healthy variety of dishes. (I ended up taking the sandwich home for dinner). After another two hours of work & cleanup, it was back to Daley Plaza for hot dogs, live music, beer...and rest.
But in looking back, I admit that I had a great time - after all, I enjoyed a pleasant day doing some work for a worthy school. However, the Chicago Cares Serve-A-Thon left me with some great experiences...and some other great thoughts.
Personally, I loved the push towards volunteering - even after the event, I received a great e-mail with further opportunities to get involved. I'm even tempted to consider organizing a team of Chicago Now bloggers for next year. (If you're interested, drop me a note). As a way of engaging people around a cause, the Serve-A-Thon is a great first step....
...but my qualms are a little more personal in nature. As I write this, funding for Chicago Public Schools has been slashed, and our state legislator and governor are locked in a budget battle with many Illinois residents stuck in the middle. Many of the problems we face cannot be solved merely with teams of corporate volunteers. Chicago Cares Serve-A-Thon is a great start that follows through....but hoping many volunteers to think that one project has greater impact than it does may be expecting too much.
But I also wonder how much potential volunteers feel they are making a difference? I'm reminded of Chicago's abortive bid for the 2016 Olympics - so many people felt motivated to jump in and improve the community for international guests....but those same people seem to have faded from view. (To be fair, I'm also concerned that corporate volunteers may be motivated out of a desire to improve public relations than the greater community). Working towards the social good is a long-term process that looks at deeply entrenched systems and beliefs...and won't be solved overnight. But perhaps my own familiarity with these issues is clouding my perception...and I have to admit that Chicago Cares Serve-A-Thon was a great, fun experience.
All in all, I commend Chicago Cares for running their 2015 Serve-A-Thon. Perhaps it's the best first step for Chicago residents, providing an opportunity to jump into deeper work by taking on simpler work first. It's well worth your time, and I thank Chicago Cares for inviting me to participate.
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