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The Politics of Community Service
Posted by Charles Esslinger on Nov 6th, 2012

There are probably more people in your community volunteering than you realize. But not everyone makes a fuss about it. Volunteers usually aren't in it for the publicity. Many aren't even there to set an example. They volunteer because it makes them feel good about themselves and because it makes their community a better place to live it. This silent majority of hardworking, passionate volunteers ought to be commended.

Unfortunately, there are people out there who co-opt community service programs and events for their own purposes. Businesses, politicians, and celebrities sometimes use community service as a publicity tool in order to further their own image or career. Their intent may be noble, but their actions often do nothing to support community service, and in some cases, they actually become a detriment to the cause.

Community service is serious business. It can have a profound effect on volunteers, families, and neighborhoods. Community service makes a real difference in people's lives, and it should never be exploited or taken for granted. Quite simply, community service should never be used as a photo opportunity. It's fake and it's wrong.


Community Service Isn't a Photo Op:

Presidential politics often rely on photo ops, though they don't always go as planned. Congressman Paul Ryan learned that lesson earlier this month during a visit to a Youngstown soup kitchen. The Republican vice presidential candidate stopped by the soup kitchen, which is operated by the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, for about 15 minutes after an event at Youngstown State University.

The real question is, why was Paul Ryan there? Even people from the charity didn't seem to know. By the time Ryan arrived, breakfast had been served and many of the volunteers had already left. Undeterred, Ryan and his family stayed to meet with some of the remaining volunteers. They also washed some dishes that had been left aside for them. All the while, TV cameras were running. The video is available here.

Ryan's visit wasn't even approved by leaders of the charity. Brian J. Antal, the group's president, claimed the Romney campaign "ramrodded their way" into the soup kitchen. "We're a faith-based organization; we are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations," Anton said during an interview. "It's strictly in our bylaws not to do it. They show up here, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors."

It turns out that Juanita Sherba, St. Vincent's Saturday dinning hall coordinator, gave the Romney campaign permission to visit. In retrospect, she says she realizes it wasn't her call to make. "It was all about him coming in and doing dishes for publicity," Sherba said. "It was the phoniest piece of baloney I've ever been associated with. In hindsight, I would have never let him in the door."

St. Vincent serves 98,000 meals to the poor every year. They serve lunch to over 200 people every weekday and breakfast to 150 on Saturdays. If you would like to donate or learn more, please visit the charity's website.


A hurricane and some canned food:

Donating to charities is always a good thing, and in times of crisis, it can become even more important. The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy has brought the contributions of volunteers and charities into the national spotlight. There are a lot of great people throughout the country donating their time and resources to help others recover from this tragedy. Even the Romney campaign has joined in.

During the initial impact of Hurricane Sandy, the Republican presidential candidate transformed his campaign events into a storm relief effort. People were encouraged through social media to bring non-perishable food items to campaign rallies. All donations, including supplies allegedly purchased by the Romney campaign from Walmart, were donated to the Red Cross. Romney also made a financial contribution to the Red Cross and encouraged his supporters to do the same.

The events highlighted a touchy topic for aid organizations and charities. Food and clothing donations, while appreciated, divert resources from ongoing relief efforts. It can take a long time to route collections into a disaster area, and in many cases, canned food and clothing aren't priorities. People need water, gas, and electricity, not canned corn. In a world where "cash is king," monetary donations can be used more effectively to coordinate disaster relief.

The Red Cross expressed their gratitude to both presidential candidates. "We are grateful that both the Obama and Romney campaigns have also encouraged the public to send financial donations to the Red Cross," said a spokesman for the organization. "We encourage individuals who want to help to consider making a financial donation or making an appointment to give blood."

If you are interested in making a donation, please visit the American Red Cross website.


Sources:

Vindy.com - http://www.vindy.com/news/2012/oct/16/soup-kitchen-visit-by-ryan-stirs-anger/?newswatch
The Washington Post - http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/wp/2012/10/15/charity-president-unhappy-about-paul-ryan-soup-kitchen-photo-op/
ABC News - http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/aid-organizations-prefer-cash-to-canned-food/