While on holiday to Hawaii, I was driving down a highway on the island of Oahu and passed a sign for the “Adopt a Highway” program. The program is for local organizations and communities to keep their roads and areas clean and free of litter. I was really pleasantly surprised to see that this particular highway stretch had been adopted by the Baha’is of Wahiawa!
Rendering service to humanity is an important part of being not just a Baha’i, but a member of any religion and in fact pretty much any good moral code. But sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Well here are nine simple ideas to get you thinking. I’d love to hear more ideas in the comments!
1. Visit the Elderly
Health is about more than just nurses and medicine. Friendship, love, laughter and warmth are arguably more important to a person’s wellbeing than anything else. That’s why visiting the elderly is such an important service activity.
For those senior citizens without much family or care, having regular visitors with whom they can share their stories, wisdom and perhaps a cup of coffee provides much needed support and enjoyment.
Organizing this type of service activity is relatively easy and can be arranged for both individuals and groups either by joining an established organization like Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly or simply by organizing with a local home for the aged.
Best of all, like all service activity, the rewards for the volunteers are often greater than for the recipients – after all there is much to learn from our elders!
2. Give Blood
While most service projects require repeated, regular effort to be truly useful, giving blood can be organized as a once-off activity. The Red Cross organize blood drives and blood donation centres in many countries and assuming you meet the medical criteria for donating, it’s usually something that can be arranged fairly easily.
There is an ongoing need for blood, so this activity is always worthwhile!
3. Feed the Homeless or Underprivileged
Baha’u'llah was also known as the “Father of the Poor” and his son Abdu’l-Baha received a knighthood from the British in part for his philanthropy. As Baha’is we must always strive to follow their examples, and undertaking a project to help feed the poor and homeless is a small step in that direction.
Years ago I lived in a Baha’i community who volunteered at a local soup kitchen to run one of their weekly weekend meals every six months. It took about fifteen people to run the soup kitchen and we were given instruction by the church who ran the place and who had kindly allowed us to help.
This type of activity takes a bit of organization and coordination as you will need to find an existing venue to help out at. For my community we were in contact with the church who ran the soup kitchen because we had been reaching out to local religious groups. The minister was a really lovely guy who invited us to come and see the different activities they organized. We learnt a lot, and the service project was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of.
4. Clean up litter
Projects like Adopt-a-Highway or Clean Up Australia are great to join if you are looking for a coordinated litter collection project, but you can always just organize a group to go out to a local park or beach and clean up without being a part of any larger program. Cleaning up litter in your community is a great service project which improves the place for everyone around.
Like many of the project ideas listed here, it also involves getting outdoors, working in teams and doing something physical. This can be a nice change of pace for people – even if this particular project is a bit mucky by its very nature!
5. Plant Trees
Projects like National Tree Day, Plant for the Planet and UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign aim to help rejuvenate the world’s environment by asking volunteers to plant lots and lots of trees. Organizing a tree planting service project is a great way to contribute to the environment. Moreover there is something very rewarding about being involved in such a far sighted project. Trees take a long time to grow, and it’s a great feeling when you pat down the earth around your seedling knowing that in a couple decades you can return with your children and point out the trees you helped grow!
6. Help out at the local Animal Shelter
The Baha’i writings exhort us to ‘show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature’, so a wonderful service project to undertake is to volunteer at a local animal shelter. If you are a bit of an animal lover this is one of those service projects that is almost too fun to feel like real service.
Years ago I used to walk and foster dogs for a dog rescue outfit. While it was technically volunteer work, to be honest I just loved doing it because I love dogs! Still it was work that had to be done!
Most animal shelters need a range of help from walking dogs to providing food and doing a variety of janitorial duties. However animal work can get much more specialized too. At work we have a guy who spends his weekends working to help our native Australian fairy penguins survive out in the wild!
7. Join a Big Brother / Big Sister Program
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a fantastic program aimed at giving children facing adversity with support and mentorship through one-one relationships.
Because of the nature of this type of service, this is unlikely to be something you can organize for a group. However that’s not to say that a few of you can’t decide to take on this commitment together.
It is definitely a lot more commitment than some of the other projects listed in this article, however the long term rewards are enormous as you will have the opportunity to make a huge impact in someone’s life. According to the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization ’81% of former Littles surveyed agree their Big gave them hope & changed their perspective of what they thought possible.’
8. Volunteer your Professional Services
While some professions are inherently service-oriented such as being a doctor, virtually every profession has utility to non-profit organizations. Giving your time and work for free to an organization that needs a builder, a painter, a lawyer, a designer, a clerk, or whatever else you might be, is oftentimes one of the most effective ways you can contribute.
This type of service project brings to mind the wider Baha’i principle of work as worship, as `Abdu’l-Baha states:
The man who makes a piece of notepaper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise.
`Abdu’l-Baha: Paris Talks, pp. 176-177
If all work can be worship, how much more so work that is done in the spirit of giving? Volunteering your professional services may not be as much fun as getting out and planting trees or walking dogs, but it is immensely useful!
9. Bring Your Neighbourhood / Community Together
You may have noticed that a theme of all the service project ideas here is helping your own community. Before you look afar, it’s always important to first serve your neighbours, family, friends and community. Service begins with those around you.
Some years ago my parents began a monthly neighbourhood get together where they gathered as many of their neighbours as they could and one person shared a short presentation about something (anything) that was dear to them. They had a geologist explain the principles of geology, a hand-crafter give an account of why knitting was the bee’s knees, a software developer talk about their love of code, and so on. It started small, but soon enough virtually everyone from the houses up and down their street and neighbouring streets had been and met each other, and strong bonds of friendship were formed.
Building community and neighbourliness takes effort and dedication, and though it might not leap to mind when you hear the words service project, this is very much a service to the community. Moreover bringing together a neighbourhood can be a gateway to actioning other service projects together, like many of those listed above!
Those are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling. There are many more things you can do. In fact there are a number of websites dedicated to helping you find opportunities to serve and volunteer. Two great sites full of opportunity are Serve.gov and VolunteerMatch.org.
And don’t forget to add your ideas for service projects and stories of participation in the comments!