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by James Brown, February 2010
People often ask how I became interested in community service. My commitment to serve others is inherited: Both of my parents were very active in our community. Whenever they saw a need, they pitched in. It was how I grew up in Washington, D.C.: My parents showed me that people shouldn't think twice when trying to decide whether to help a friend or neighbor in need.
See also: AARP Experience Corps program matches volunteer tutors and mentors with youth in their communities.
We had benefited from the help of others. As a kid, I ended up in private school, and our extended family and friends in the neighborhood often chipped in to provide the dress shirts and ties for my school uniform. I saw from an early age that helping out a neighbor or those in need was natural, and I wanted to do the same thing as an adult. That's one of the reasons I started the JB Awards.
My first volunteer job was helping some neighbors across the street — an indigent family whose son didn't have a decent pair of dress shoes to wear to elementary school. I took him to the store and used money I saved from working summer jobs to buy him a couple of pairs of shoes and a nice dress shirt. Again, it reminded me of what folks had done for me when I was a kid, and to come full circle and help that young man really made me feel good. I tried to feed that feeling from that point forward.
Contribute to the Good of the Whole
Coming from a sports background, I appreciate the notion of teamwork, of recognizing one's role within the context of a team, and seeing that everybody brings a talent and a gift to the table. To me, it would be the height of misuse, if you will, if that gift isn't used and shared to help others. Our gifts are not meant for us to indulge in alone.
You don't need to give money to help your community. Time is your most precious commodity, so honoring others by sharing your time is a gift and makes a difference. When people become insular and self-oriented — as opposed to community-oriented — they start down a self-defeating path and end up isolating themselves. And that doesn't help anybody.
I'll use an athletic example to make the point. Kobe Bryant is a phenomenal basketball player. Few people would argue that. As the Los Angeles Lakers advanced toward the NBA finals in 2009, one of the storylines was of Kobe's passionate desire to win a championship as a team leader and without Shaquille O'Neal, who had helped the Lakers (and Kobe) win a couple of championships before.
Well, the Lakers did win it all in 2009. But it wasn't because Kobe or his teammates suddenly had more talent. It was because Kobe understood the importance of being a leader and helping his teammates maximize their talent, to make sure every player on the floor was actively involved and contributing for the good of the team.
Maybe that's a trite example, but it shows that you have to contribute to the good of the whole—to help others maximize their gifts — if you want to find success and fulfillment. If everyone is contributing to the common good, then a rising tide really will lift all ships.
Red Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics to 11 championship titles in 13 years. It's among the most impressive feats in sports history. And yet not one of his teams ever had the NBA leading scorer.
Unlike a lot of people involved in pro sports — or other pursuits, for that matter — Auerbach didn't waste time stroking egos. He built teams, making sure that every player contributed to the common good.
In fact, his motto, which he had printed over the door for every player to see when they came into that gym, was, "Check your ego at the door."
Think about that in the context of a community and a neighborhood. We all live such hectic lives these days, and we don't always take the time to get to know our neighbors. But the reality of life is that we all have ups and downs. Wouldn't you be comforted to know that you've got neighbors who are sensitive, observant, and giving enough to help if you're in a position of need? If you're doing that for your neighbors and community, it will come back in multiples to you.
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