Sonia 1My parents taught me the importance of community service early on. They would walk down to the library and shelve books while I sat back, my nose buried in graphic novels, wondering about the mysteries of the Dewey decimal system that I was too young to understand. We were quite well known among the librarians for our unmatched victories in each year’s Saint Patrick’s Day limerick contest and our growing dedication to the wellbeing of that little library. And as my brother and I grew up, we became more and more a part of this mission to give back to the place that had granted us every story we’d ever needed.

By the time I was 10 and he was 12, my brother and I had become the children librarian’s pride and joy. I’d go in a couple times each week and shelve picture books and novels until it got dark and my dad came looking for me. Maybe it was the lady at the front desk’s smile as I told her how many carts I shelved, or sitting behind that counter putting stickers on books and feeling like the most important 10 year old there was. Whatever it was, I remember walking home and feeling, in a word, special. This is where my connection to community service truly emerged.

A couple years passed and giving back became no longer just about me.  I helped out in food pantries and made lunches for Crossroads that I was able to hand directly to people in need. Maybe a lunch wasn’t a life-altering contribution, but it felt like a promise. I was part of something that promised to never let those in difficult spots fall to a place they couldn’t get back from. For everything I’d been given, it felt like such an honor to be one person in the process of helping someone live the life that I took for granted.

BBYO found me when I was 14. I instantly discovered what it felt like to truly be a part of a group of kind and dedicated teens that had grown to be everything I wanted to become as an incoming high schooler. The boys and girls who welcomed me were passionate about topics like social injustice and world issues. They knew that there was a time to dance and a time to cry and did both together. In BBYO, it was virtually impossible to not make a connection in the span of a three-day convention. And I was so grateful for this. I had stumbled upon a community of teens who not only shared my Jewish heritage, but cared about the kind of things I did. They brought a whole new aspect to community service: unity.

One of the first events I attended with my BBYO chapter was a volunteering opportunity at the children’s center of Crossroads. We sat around tables drawing and reading books and eventually got up and spun in circles until the kids became too preoccupied with showing their newly acquired temporary tattoos to their moms. I remember talking about the whole experience on the ride home and feeling so humbled by the pure joy that emanated from those kids. They beamed at such little things, like the sight of little pictures stuck to their arms, and thoughtfully listened when we read them our favorite childhood stories. What I remember most of all, though, is the looks on their parents faces as they watched the pandemonium go down. I almost wanted to thank them. Their little kids had shown us why we’d come together. Each laugh made us remember what we were working toward. That little room in the basement became more than just that. It became a place of new beginnings. A place of realizations and pure hope. I felt like that 10 year old behind the library desk again.

On April 17th, the entire BBYO New England Region took part in J-serve, a yearly global community service initiative. In three separate locations, teens cleaned parks, gardened, and organized donated food. Members in Rhode Island prepped a room In the Women’s Center of RI to be made into a library. No, we aren’t the biggest region in the International Order, but here we were making a difference. This brought us together, however many miles we were from each other.

I suppose the moral of this story is gratitude. I joined BBYO not really knowing what to expect, yet it became my second home. It became a place for me to take everything I had been given and give it back.  I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I hope that in the future we can expand our community service initiatives, affect more lives, and work together for the greater good. Because being thankful is not about you. It’s not about your gifts or privileges. It’s about what you have and how you share it. And if you don’t, then who will?