For the past ten years, I’ve spent my summer vacation running a one-week camp-designed curriculum for kids. Fifty to 100 kids ranging from ages two to twenty come from all over Contra Costa County to join us. The camp is free. I round up about twenty volunteers to help me. Each year there is a different theme.
I had been extremely moved by a presentation of the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, and this year I decided to take the kids there. I wanted them to meet their sister and brother mammals, to show them how to be good stewards of the earth and oceans, and to explain why it’s important to be kind to all creatures. I hoped to teach them that by caring for these animals, they were caring for all life, including themselves. So I dressed up as Mother Ocean, complete with a black skirt and huge umbrella decorated with fish, and I met the kids as they arrived for their first day of camp.
The first thing we did was take off our Cool Jackets. That’s right, nobody was allowed to be cool. I had each and every kid remove the layer that made him or her behave a certain way—tough, or bad, or indifferent, or bored. When they’d shed that, I told them to put on their Me Jackets, the real me, and I challenged them to be their true selves the entire time they were at camp. If somebody slipped, we’d say, “Oops, looks like you’ve got your Cool Jacket on.”
We sang, we danced, we learned. “Nothing created on this earth is junk” was one of the lessons. It all has to be treated with respect. Another lesson was that we all have the obligation to be the best we can be. This kids collected bottles to exchange for money they donated to the Marine Mammal Center. They took the job seriously, very seriously. You’ve never seen so many bottles. They also collected pencils that they sent to children in Guatemala. They were thrilled to receive letters thanking them for their gift. We made cookies, and we had a water fight where the most fun seemed to be in drenching me. The last night, we camped overnight on the church campus lawn. I brought my telescope, and the kids learned about astronomy. Of course we made S’mores.
On Friday, when the parents came to pick the kids up, I was exhausted. I had forfeited a week’s salary, and a vacation where I might have rested from my job. I had given up a holiday with my own kids, where we might have taken a trip together and seen some new sights. Yet, watching these children—who had been strangers just a few days before and who I might never see again—get in their parents’ cars and drive away, I felt an overwhelming sense of abundance, of gratitude, and of joy. They had opened themselves up to me and I had spent a week surrounded by their hope, their enthusiasm, their sense of wonder and generosity, and yes—their love. One five-year-old boy had told me, “I love you, Miss Micheal. I’m going to pray for you every day,” I have no doubt that’s true. We had spent the week being part of the same world, without focusing on the me part. We were all profoundly connected to each other and to the rest of the planet.
I feel this same sense of abundance and of connection in my work at ASEB. When someone at ASEB passes away, and someone from their family comes up and says thank you for making the end of their life so meaningful, I feel successful, gratified, and enriched beyond anything having to do with income and status. I feel successful because I’m doing exactly what I was created to do. My life is abundant because I have the opportunity to give of myself and to witness the effects it has on the world around me.
I believe that we all long for this feeling of connection, and that the capacity to give is crucial to our happiness as human beings. When we serve others without expecting anything in return, it’s life changing. It bestows prosperity beyond material wealth and brings meaning to our lives in ways that no new car, fancy vacation, or dream house can. I am convinced that when you give, you will live abundantly, and you will always have enough. And serving others is addictive—once you’ve started, you don’t want to stop. You have to keep going back for more.
Which leads me to our supporters who come back, year after year. Volunteers who donate their time, contributors who donate their money. We thank you. Part of our goal for this 25th anniversary year is to thank you in person, to shake your hands, to share our accomplishments face-to-face. We rely on your continued support. And for everyone else, please experience the sense of connection and abundance that comes from giving to those who need your help. This is my official invitation to take off your Cool Jackets and join the party.
Executive Director, ASEB