• John Gangi

Service Never Smelled So Good

Service has been something that I have always been a part of, I was an Eagle Scout back in the days and went on to serve in the US Peace Corps in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan as a university teacher. As much as I liked the idea of doing positive things to the community, I’ve always enjoyed the social aspect of service. Meeting new people and learning about new cultures and communities through service have played a major role in developing my enjoyment for travel which eventually led me to work internationally for the last 20 years (living in 4 continents). While in university, I volunteered for the Refugee Resettlement Program in university where I became a support system for a Kurdish family as they moved to their new home in Virginia, leaving behind war from Iraq. To see a family displaced and yet still welcome me with a full meal every time I visited their home will always resonate with me and drives me to want to do more. I have always felt that service is mutually beneficial, you give and you gain, although oftentimes we don’t realize just how much we gain for ourselves when participating in in-service actions. Your community will always be there for you, so long as you give back to it.

When I began teaching, I realized just how much I had gained as a person through the service experiences and felt that such opportunities needed to offer to every student albeit in a practical way. A challenge that I recognized was the unsustainable nature of service actions at school. Doing good should be built into your everyday life versus something you do every now and then, or as an add on. This is when I started exploring social enterprises, as it’s a chance to be sustainable and allow one to help themselves while helping others. Upon working at NIST, I encountered a small group of students who were keen on starting a coffee project as they found coffee being grown in a small hill tribe village they had previously visited on a school trip, I instantly agreed. The group's regular coffee sales could generate money to support community projects. With coffee farmers rarely receiving their fair share of coffee sales, environmental damage being done through large-scale coffee plantations, and the fact that Thai hill tribes are oftentimes neglected as a community, there was a lot of good that such a group could do for the community.

FairNIST Coffee was born in the spirit of fairtrade proceeds would go back into community projects and the NIST community would receive the caffeine they so wanted, while students were able to learn an array of skills along the way. To begin students needed to educate themselves on the in and outs of coffee from the harvesting of coffee cherries to the roasting process, they needed to find experts to learn and partner with, they needed to develop marketing and accounting skills, and they had to do significant problem solving as barriers were regularly thrown their way. Moreover, we had to assure proceeds were put to appropriate projects, we needed to visit the farmers and their communities to assure our goals were being achieved, and we had to be honest with ourselves and make changes if we fell short. It was a journey and still is. I have learned as much as students along the way and have made some lifelong friendships too from students who have gone on to graduate, to the roasters and farmers they work with to the customers/ advocates who have been supporting the group along the way. There have been many setbacks but that is where the real world collides head-on with learning.

Service can be such an authentic representation of the real world and can offer such a hands-on experience for all to learn from that he wishes more schools would offer more space for it in their programs. As much as I love being active in his community, I do however remember not always enjoying the service projects I was part of when growing up. Looking back I realized that it wasn't that I didn’t like service, it was that those particular projects didn't interest me, and that was okay. I compare service to fitness/ sport. Some avoid it and claim they don't like it and that it is not for them or they claim they aren't good at it. Ask yourself why? In sport it may have been the wrong group of people you were playing with, or that you are shy to get involved with those people the same goes for service. In sport, a person may feel uncomfortable due to a lack of stamina/ or skill, the same goes for service. The person might not enjoy losing, as with service one must endure barriers and so many tend to avoid it. We could go on. In making your own choices in how you will be an active part of your community and in making our community a better place. Be sure to connect it with a passion, a strength, or with something you have always wanted to explore, do it with people you like and respect, realize like in starting out with any sport it will take time for you to develop skills that will make you feel like you are an effective part of the team. Service is all about to persevere in the face of adversity, and so mentally prepare yourself just like in sport. Combine all of this with accomplishing your goal like in a sport and you have a recipe for enjoying it. My message to all those people who are not involved in the community in some capacity is that you are missing out! Get out there, get involved and I promise you, you will not only enjoy, but it will also bring you and your community to some exciting places.

(Via Reid Wilson Photography)

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