- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

It sounds like a movie plot: A secret army of people with special gifts, heroic strength and selfless character move throughout society. They perform impossible feats, saving and changing lives, yet they are unknown, unrecognized and unpaid.

Heroes. That’s what I call them. They are people who take on responsibility willingly, using their unique abilities to help others.

You know who they are: the senior citizen who ignores painful joints to help his neighbors; the woman who cobbles together the food to cook a feast for her entire church family week after week; the lady who walks neighbors’ dogs along with her own; the people who stay after a meeting ends to put away the chairs and sweep up.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it perfectly. “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”

I have been blessed with the chance to encounter so many heroes, and I have taught my children to recognize heroism wherever it exists. My community is replete with heroes. I don’t know why, but the old-fashioned habit of neighbors pitching in and helping out never went out of fashion in our small community. It keeps us close, and it makes it a pleasure to do the normal daily tasks. I see one neighbor mowing someone’s lawn, another helping someone with home repairs, another bringing home-baked pastry to a family of hungry kids.

Home-schooling families have great flexibility to get involved in the community. Since we’re not compelled to follow a certain daily routine, we can arrange study time around volunteer opportunities.

The Capital Area Food Bank (www.capitalareafood bank.org) and the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (www.midatlanticgleaningnetwork.org) provide food to many thousands of families each week, through a large network of partner organizations and distribution points. In my observation, the overwhelming majority of the volunteers are retirees or have physical limitations. Youths and younger adults could provide some much-needed support to these projects. I see men in their 70s toting 50-pound bags of produce. Young men could not only carry those bags more easily, but they would be building strong bones and muscles at the same time.

While sorting good produce from bad, the kids get to hear from elders. Over the bins, people spontaneously share recipes and ways to preserve foodstuffs. They tell stories of early years and share news about their own work: helping senior citizens’ homes, delivering food to shut-ins or working with immigrants. Some help out in schools, some care for family members. Kids can observe their example up close and inherit their wisdom and work ethic.

Volunteering teaches so many skills, too, including how to approach a task, organize systems and solve problems — and recognize that the surest way to find your own value is to see how you can help others. If people are out of work, if they are recuperating from illness, if they are struggling to find a direction in life, volunteering helps clear away the cobwebs and revive the spirits.

Home-schoolers who make volunteering a priority reap benefits beyond just the satisfaction of helping others. Learning to see need builds empathy, creatively responding to that need builds character and organizing better ways to resolve issues is a key quality of leadership.

Kate Tsubata is a freelance writer and home-schooler living in Maryland.

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