It all started on a cool, rainy night in December 2014. Wednesday, December 3rd, to be more exact. I was standing in front of the Whitinsville Social Library with my phone shoved deep into my pocket as the rain dripped down over my hood. That day, I knew I could have been celebrating my cousin’s birthday, but I was there on the stone steps without any knowledge of how drastically my life would change over the course of the next two years.
Alright, I’ll admit, the volunteer work originally started to fulfill the community service hours I needed to graduate. But, after that first week, I found something I had truly loved- helping people without really helping people. I know, that sounds very hypocritical and confusing, but it’s completely true. I began my work there shelving. Four full carts. One hour. Too simple and too quick. So, a pull list was added in. Also too easy. After a month of two, I was shelving, completing the pull list, boxing, and helping some of the visitors find what they were looking for. At the time, I didn’t see the change I was making. All I saw was another harder challenge that I could definitely finish in the hour I was there.
However, after four months or so, I began realizing the small things. My shift was originally with the oldest two employees- people who couldn’t run up and down the stairs, carry the large stacks of books, or reach the bottom shelf without sitting first. And, something in me pained when I realized that my twenty hours were almost complete. Seeing their faces light up as I walked through the door was much more meaningful to me than seeing my graduation requirement fulfilled.
So I stayed. And after a year, I looked around and realized how much I had done for that place even if it was only one hour a week. The books were in order, the staff was happy, and the visitors were more quickly finding their desired books. And, sometimes the guilt pained me as I signed my name in the book, knowing the true reason why I was there.
Over the summers, I dedicated over an hour since they were short staff and even became friends with some of the employees and customers. The funny thing about having the same shift each week is that you get to learn about the people that you never even knew existed and meet new ones too. By a year and a half, I was able to tell who exactly was there- the knitters showing up a bit before me, the little girl celebrating downstairs with her math tutor, the young man awaiting his Spanish tutor by the magazine rack, the disappointed law student trying her hardest to get justice for those that she was dear to, the single mother trying her absolute best to get her son to read, the Facebook woman in the back corner, and the homeless man that came in every now and then to read the newspaper or the next book in his favorite series. I couldn’t tell you their names, but I could tell you all about them.
So, I have over seventy hours now from this project and I am too far in to stop now. They need me there and, as I discovered after a month of strep, I needed to be there too. Volunteering at the Whitinsville Social Library was not something that was just for community service, but for the community. I didn’t just learn how to shelve books and read the call numbers, I learned about lives of those people I never knew. I learned about the true meaning of helping the community.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.