Cherry River Elementary School

People may rightly wonder why I spend resources — time, energy and a little money — working with students and others around the world. It is pretty simple. I was schooled in a time when we (yes, all of us of that day) believed our civics, problems of democracy, constitutional law and related-coursework teachers. We were told that citizens have an obligation to the greater community, in exchange for living in relative freedom to do as we please. I don’t know whether better citizens were encouraged in the process, but for me the impact has been pervasive my entire life.

I became the longest-serving mayor of my small, poor Appalachian city, a mill town established at the turn of the last century to harvest Eastern hardwood timber. During my twelve-plus years, I was able with the help of good members of common council and a tireless staff, to keep the city in the black, despite significant downturns. In just over 20 years, we lost one-third of our population. What that does to municipal budgets and particularly utility rate-setting issues, well you need not be a CPA to figure out that one. Citizens have an expectation of municipal services, and as they age, those expectations do not diminish, even if the resources to provide them do. So, why did I enter the political foray, create enemies in the process and generally lean into the punch? Because I believed I could make a positive difference in the lives of my neighbors.

But I digress, this essay was not to be about public service; rather it is about personal service. Personal service in the lives of people I know and about whom I care. I have described, in a previous post, the process of sponsoring an international student, so I will (thankfully) not recount those events here. I will instead speak to some current work I am doing. As Paul Dolan, author of the book, Happiness by Design, has observed, human happiness is likely a balanced combination of life pleasures and life purposes. I have emphasized the purposeful life in my living.*

It was my good fortune to be able to retain student interns at my expense in my last three or so years of elected office. The interns served as file clerks, mostly, but they also traveled with me to meetings. My goal was to broaden their life experiences: governmental events, nonprofit events, music-performance events and the like, just to bring a larger world to them. Larger than the secondary-school experiences they encountered. All three continued onward with tertiary education and we remain in touch daily. I wanted then and continue to model to them that there remains at least one, non-relative adult in their lives who sincerely gives a damn about them. Even with the ups and downs of higher education, all three are going to do great things in this world. I like to think that maybe I have had a hand in that process. Some days, I believe I may have done better than I ever dreamed. I consider all three former interns as grandchildren as much as my biological ones. I love them and routinely tell them as much. I don’t believe there is enough of that sort of communication going on nowadays. The older I become, the less I concern myself with how anyone might view my displays of affection.

In another recent instance, I saw an opportunity to assist a young person with getting gainful employment. He had reluctantly left a good job in another state to return home and help care for an ill parent. We will know in a short while if the process will bear fruit, but the point is that I saw, through the eye of a mentor, a chance to help someone who needed it.

In yet another instance, I am engaging a student in reading a wide variety of essays, so that one day, he will be better able to articulate his own (admittedly-radical) thoughts in the field of developmental psychology.

The part of me that could be considered “mentoring” called me out of retirement to teach music, theater and cultural studies in a local, primary-school ‘after-school’ program three afternoons each week. I am routinely encouraged by the response of students in grades K-2 for coursework subjects they never encounter as part of their usual curriculum.

If you find any encouragement in this piece, to identify genuine needs of people in your circles, then please put your desires into purposeful action. There are few things more gratifying. For happiness, life needs to have purpose.

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