Luskin: Benefits of community service

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(HOST) President Obama is encouraging more Americans to take part in community service – a concept heartily endorsed by commentator Deborah Luskin, who says that volunteering in the community can increase one’s sense of belonging.

(LUSKIN) If I never bake another brownie or chair another committee for a giant fundraising event, it’s okay by me. While bake sales and galas have their place, they’re not my cup of tea. And I’m flattered whenever I’m asked to serve on a board of a local institution, but when I say, "Thanks for the honor, but you really don’t want me at your meetings," I’m only doing them a favor. I do have a social conscience, though, and I want to serve in my community. It’s not really a matter of choice; in my mind, we all must contribute. The trick is to find out how we can do that best.
I tried, early in my marriage, to help with a fundraiser for the local hospital where my husband works. When my kids were little, I helped at their school. While I’m competent at organizing special events, I recognize that there are others who can do the job with a great deal more good humor than I, so I gladly demoted myself to willing lackey, happy to work one of the many menial tasks that contributes to the whole.
But I wanted to do something more, something that tapped my more particular talents and that would somehow make a difference in other people’s lives. That’s when I saw an ad: my local Community Justice Center was seeking volunteers.
I’ve been serving on a Reparative Panel for two years now. We meet once a month. Mostly, I listen. I listen to other people’s stories – how they were harmed, when it’s a victim who speaks, or how they have harmed others when it’s an offender.
Unlike criminal justice, restorative justice is not punitive. The panel members, the victim and the offender all work together to figure out how to repair the harm done. Because Restorative Justice views crime as a breakdown of relationships, we brainstorm ways to restore relationships between the offender and the community. Often, the panel suggests community service. An offender before our panel brought Christmas trees and food to shut-ins in his community, a community he endangered by driving under the influence. Initially, he said he didn’t know anyone in his town. Now, he says, he’s met some of his neighbors. He’s made himself known as a guy who’s there to help out, rather than as a guy to avoid on the road.
Volunteering at the Community Justice Center is a win-win-win situation. The Restorative Justice process depends on volunteers to function. It’s an inexpensive and effective alternative to incarceration, which benefits the taxpayers. Reparative Justice includes the victim in the process and makes amends. Offenders learn how they have affected others and take responsibility for what they have done. And when offenders engage in community service, the community wins again. As offenders perform some necessary task in the community, they become part of it. That’s the great thing about community service: by reaching out, we’re all taken in.

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