- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When she was 10, Inez Russell learned a lesson from her grandmother about service: “You just help people who need help.”

Simple as that.

Through the years, Inez became a wife, mother, businesswoman, Sunday school teacher and grandmother. As she volunteered in various capacities, she kept wondering, “What if this could be my job?”

One day, while visiting a family member in the hospital, she heard a woman crying in a nearby room. The woman was afraid of dying alone. Inez began visiting her regularly and struck up a friendship. Inez noticed big changes in the woman’s outlook - and health. This wasn’t lost on hospital staff members, who quickly steered her to other lonely souls.

Around that time, Inez was bombarded by stories of elderly people in need.

“Every time I picked up a newspaper or turned on the television or radio,” she recalls, “I just constantly heard about it.”

In response, she started Friends for Life, a charity in Texas, serving elderly people. At first, it was just her in a borrowed office with borrowed furniture. She recruited volunteers to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes.

She recalls, “Everything we did seemed to reveal more needs. We found one lady sitting in the dark because all the light bulbs in her house had burned out. So we started a light-bulb-changing program. We found one lady who had been stuck in her house for five years because she didn’t have a wheelchair ramp, so we started a ramp-building program.”

Today, Friends for Life serves nearly 4,000 people a year in 18 counties. It offers programs for money management, household repair, music and art therapy, therapeutic gardening, Gifts for Grannies and Grandpas (like Toys for Tots), an Intergenerational Center and an educational therapy program for children with learning disabilities.

Simple as that: “You just help people who need help.”

Of course, Inez isn’t alone. University of Denver, has been a lawyer, theologian, pastor and political leader. In his view, “There are occasions and opportunities for service that will vary throughout anyone’s life. The initial gate is that you understand that that’s a piece of being a full person. It’s a matter of saying yes to the opportunity when it appropriately appears. Every day is a preparation for serving something.”

Some people are intimidated by the notion of service. It sounds so big and, well, noble. What if we aren’t feeling altruistic today? What if we’re more focused on paying the rent? Does serving mean we all should join Teach for America or enlist in the military?

No - although those are commendable pursuits that many should consider seriously, and thank heaven for their service. We propose that for most, service is really about daily habits - about creatively finding ways to serve, in ways big and small, our spouse, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, workplace and community. About responding to need. That can mean anything from being there for a friend in trouble to managing our carbon footprint to counseling neighborhood youth to embarking on missionary work.

Service should not be relegated to the occasional good deed (or annual tax write-off). Rather, it should show up in each of our days and thus throughout our lives. Viewed this way, service becomes an organizing principle of good living, a habit that pervades our family lives, work endeavors and whatever else we do.

Of course, we live in a world of practicality, with families to support and bills to pay. Nevertheless, the rewards of service are many - including the personal fulfillment derived from serving - and serving may not be as difficult as we think. When we approach it creatively and expansively, we devise countless opportunities to serve.

Just think of Kenny Rogers hits and Jamaican reggae to R&B and gospel. He fills the hallways with music to bring a touch of grace to people in their hour of need.

What if, like Lindon and Inez, we adopted an ethic of contribution - of pervasive service - as a defining feature of our lives?

• Christopher Gergen and New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership development company. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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