When author Ina Friedman visited my school, she shared the story of a young Christian woman, Cato Bontjes van Beek, who lived in Hitler’s Germany. Horrified by the inhumanity of the Nazis, Cato risked her own life on behalf of German Jews. She once remarked, “The wonderful thing for me is to be able to help others.” As a member of the resistance group Red Orchestra, Cato wrote and distributed leaflets condemning the Nazi regime. She was arrested by the Gestapo in September 1942 and condemned to death as a traitor. At age 22, Cato was executed. Her only crime was her concern for the oppressed.
Although I have not yet been called upon to respond to such a dire situation, I am called upon daily to put my Catholic faith into action. My efforts might pale in comparison with Cato’s, but helping others, even in small ways, is a “wonderful thing” for me too.
In seventh grade, students were required to perform community service. I scrambled for ideas. What could a 12-year-old boy possibly do? How would I squeeze another commitment into an already-crowded schedule? How would my parents feel about having to drive me to yet another activity? Performing community service seemed like a hassle.
Eventually I realized I had to stop grumbling and start finding a viable idea. Inspiration struck one afternoon when I helped my mother install greeting card software on her computer. I remembered the valentines my fifth-grade class had made for nursing home residents; perhaps I could use my computer skills to design and distribute cards.
When I presented my plan to the activities director of a nursing and rehabilitation center, she gave it her immediate and enthusiastic go-ahead. By Halloween, I was cranking out and distributing cards to 100 very appreciative recipients. Since then, I have been creating nine sets of greeting cards a year, marking the holidays from Grandparents’ Day in September to Father’s Day in June. Staff members have told me that my cards are the only mail some residents ever receive. One daughter visiting her mother told me that her mom has saved every card I have given her. I never imagined that my simple idea, born of desperation, would be so meaningful to so many people.
Over time, as I became more comfortable with the residents, I began to help in other ways, too. I have been the eyes of visually impaired residents who like to play Bingo and an extra pair of hands for the staff to serve refreshments at the Sunday morning coffee hour.
A similar phenomenon happened when I decided to work at the opposite end of the age spectrum - kids aged five to ten. Two summers ago, our family joined a new parish. My parents knew that the best way to develop friendships was to become involved in activities so my mom and I volunteered at the annual vacation Bible school program. As an only child, I have virtually no little-kid experience and I wasn’t sure what I would do if a youngster started crying or, heaven forbid, had a bathroom emergency. But once the program began, my fears were quickly put to rest. I once again drew upon my technical skills, using my computer to make colorful nametags and signs. I was also responsible for setting up and operating the audio and video systems.
With another teen counselor, I shepherded my crew of six high-octane youngsters from one activity to the next. With the help of adult counselors, I learned how to cope with scraped knees and bee stings. To my great surprise, the kids actually followed my instructions, and frankly, I had fun! There’s nothing like a water-balloon fight or a scavenger hunt to bring out one’s inner child.
This one-week service project developed into other projects at my parish. I learned that a similar program is held monthly during the school year. I am now a teen leader there, interacting with some of the same children I met at Bible camp. Together, we play games, sing songs, read stories, share a snack and make simple crafts. It’s a little scary to think that these kids actually look to me for direction, but I guess I must be doing a decent job. I felt both flattered and humbled the first time a parent told me that I was a good role model for her child.
Working with the very old and the very young has been more enjoyable and fulfilling than I ever thought possible. My activities at the nursing home have made me more aware of the blessing of my own good health as well as that of my family members. I now realize that life, however frail, is a gift. Despite their age and physical challenges, these individuals still have much to offer and should be treated with dignity. And I enjoy seeing the faces of the youngsters glowing with wonder and innocence. They remind me of how important it is to remain open to whatever adventures lie just around the bend.
Anne Frank, another young woman who died at the hands of the Nazis, wrote, “Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Like Cato Bontjes van Beek, Anne knew that each of us has been uniquely gifted. It is our obligation to share that gift with others, even in the simplest ways. The needs are many, and the time is now. Challenge yourself and get involved. I am certain you will discover that helping others will be a “wonderful thing” in your life as well.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.