Recently, I was lucky enough to work alongside over 60 university students and Deloitte professionals serving Greater Atlanta and its communities as part of United Way’s Alternative Spring Break. During my week there, I volunteered for the Premier Academy of Easter Seals North Georgia (ESNG), an organization that meets the needs of children with disabilities, supplying equal opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency. Through my experience, I was humbled by the joyous capability I witnessed in the life of the children I served, the students with whom I met, and the five lessons I learned.
1. The gift of time:
Easter Seal’s founder, Edgar Allen, once said, “your life…shall be valued not by what we take…but by what we give.” While sitting in a classroom of three-year-olds, their hands pulled, patted, clawed, and clambered for my undivided attention. As the teacher called out apologetically, I assured her the children’s behavior did not bother me. I realized how important my personal attention was to these kids. Tangible gifts can go a long way for charitable groups, but my experience showed me that the facetime we impart can have just as large of an impact as the donations we give.
2. Names matter:
Through special programs like “Babies Can’t Wait,” ESNG identifies young children who manifest symptoms of mental health disorders. Some of the children need help to improve their communication and reciprocal play skills. At the start of the week, I met a boy who rarely made eye contact. He would watch quietly as I built block towers with the other children. I persisted in interacting with him, showing him what the others and I were playing, putting toys in his hand and addressing him by name. By the end of the week, he was engaging with the other kids, approaching me voluntarily, and verbally communicating. Each one of us carries a need to feel recognized and to feel like we matter. As volunteers, making each person feel like an individual can be just the help they need.
3. Success begins in childhood
As United Way of Greater Atlanta shared with us: “Communities can thrive today and reach their greatest future potential only if their children are thriving.” The ability to read is a critical element to a child’s academic achievement, their future earning potential, and their ability to contribute to local economies. ESNG provides pre-kindergarten education to over 1,600 children, ages six weeks to five-years-old. They are laying the groundwork for a future of success.
4. Boundless connections:
I met students from across the nation for just one week to tackle some of these communities’ biggest needs. I was never disappointed by how well we worked together, never hesitating to go the extra mile for each other. By the end, I shared a meaningful connection with every individual I met: from learning about my Easter Seals class’s families, to staying up until three in the morning talking with my roommate. My experience with United Way reminded me of how important the uniqueness of all people is in collaboration for the common good.
5. Having a positive attitude
Atlanta, a city known for its warm weather and sunshine, was blanketed by strong winds, overcast skies, and freezing temperatures during my stay. Despite this, the stellar attitude my team and I exhibited throughout the week is what helped make our trip so memorable. While the change we wished for would not flower in one day, we were still making a positive impact that mattered. I am only as good as the good I do.