The right kind of motivation

Sleepout for the Homeless is a model for inspired community service

COMMUNITY service is a big part of life at the University. When Madison House takes over Newcomb Plaza to promote all of their service programs, the sheer number of poster boards to choose from is amazing. Programs such as Alternative Spring Break have more volunteers than they know what to do with, getting so many applications that three more winter programs were created. Only at the University is community service competitive. Yet the rush for community service hours is sometimes more directly related to the state of one’s resume than any true desire to improve the community. While any community service is certainly beneficial to the community, what is more important is that people commit to causes they truly believe in. Sleepout for the Homeless requires a commitment to ending homelessness because participants must give up their warm and comfortable beds, at least for one night. This embodies the true spirit of community service, giving to a cause because it is important to you and not just because you think you should.

Sponsored by the Jewish Social Justice Council, Sleepout for the Homeless originates from the Jewish holiday Sukkot. Sukkot is celebrated by sleeping outside in a temporary shelter known as a Sukkah to remember the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. Zev Lebowitz, Chair of the Jewish Social Justice Council, said that Sukkot is a time of celebration, but that the committee thought it was appropriate to consider those who have to sleep outside as well. Lebowitz also said that one of the goals of the program is to, “Raise awareness among U.Va. students,” about homelessness in Charlottesville. Sleepout for the Homeless brings together students of all faiths for one week to realize the struggle of being homeless and to raise money for the benefit of those who are. Students can sleep for one or more nights and get family and friends to sponsor them for the nights they spend sleeping out. The money raised from these sponsorships goes to a different program that supports the homeless each year. Lebowitz said this year Charlottesville Health Access was chosen from seven proposals because “Health services for the homeless are really lacking in the community,” especially considering that health care costs can sometimes cause homelessness. Additionally, “A lot of volunteers are U.Va. students, and we wanted to support our colleagues at U.Va.”

There is nothing glamorous about spending the night in a tent, and certainly nothing convenient about it on a school night when you have class the next day. There isn’t even any kind of instant gratification to be had, unlike being a tutor or mentor. Spending the now very cold October nights outdoors in order to raise money for the homeless is a self-sacrificing act for the betterment of the Charlottesville community, and that’s it. This program will continue to grow because it is self-reinforcing: Experiencing a small bit of what it is like to be homeless makes the participants want to do more to help the homeless.

Too often, the meaning of community service gets lost as students struggle to fit the requisite hours into their schedules. That’s not to say that everyone doing community service is only doing it to impress graduate schools and future employers. Most people doing community service believe in the causes they support and enjoy the time they put into bettering the community. However, community service has changed from doing it because it’s worthwhile to doing it because it’s expected.

Sleepout for the Homeless is a model for true community service because it helps students identify with the homeless. With the many activities students are involved in, not to mention the reason we’re all here, getting a degree, it should not be expected of everyone to be actively involved in community service unless that service is meaningful for them. Giving back to the community only makes sense if you support the values of the community you live in. Community service should be about fixing what you personally think is wrong with the world. No one can make a difference by being in five different organizations and only doing a little bit in each one. Only by focusing on a passion can one person hope to truly affect change in that area.

Community service is more valuable when it comes from the heart, both for the server and the community. This kind of community service will produce programs with more passion, more enthusiasm, and better results. That is what makes Sleepout for the Homeless such a great program: Its focus is on those truly committed to making a difference in the lives of the homeless, because its volunteers have lived it, if only a little bit. Working for a cause that is close to your heart is much more rewarding than working for a cause that looks good on your resume. Community service should be about more than a good cause — it should be about a good cause that you believe in.

Annette Robertson is a Cavalier Daily associate editor. She can be reached at a.robertson@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories