Be the Change – Austin, TX

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  This quote by Margaret Mead best captures the spirit of Austin’s Be the Change National Day of Service event.  When we first participated as a community in 2010, we coordinated 1 service project that involved 50 volunteers. The next year we identified 15 new service sites and engaged 500 volunteers, and the year following we doubled the number of service projects and engaged 1,000 volunteers hosting the largest Be the Change event across the country for the last 3 years.

The initial planning of Be the Change in Austin started with a small group of dedicated individuals wanting to simply promote volunteerism especially among Austin’s growing South Asian community.  Be the Change provides an avenue for individuals to get out of their comfort zones, learn about the needs of their local community and identify ways they can make a positive impact through volunteerism and community service.  It also serves as a meaningful way to mobilize the community towards a productive cause that will lead to further civic engagement.

Although rooted in the South Asian community, the Austin planning team and day of service has evolved into an event engaging volunteers from all walks of life regardless of ethnic, religious or cultural background.  Be the Change has also grown into a city-wide event. Since being identified by SAALT as one of the core cities to host Be the Change, the City of Austin has proclaimed Be the Change day in Austin each year. Our efforts have lead to strong partnerships with the University of Texas at Austin’s Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement and GivePulse, a social networking site for volunteers and nonprofit organizations, which manages our service site and volunteer registration.

Although planning a day of service is a big undertaking for a team of volunteers especially for many of us who also hold full-time jobs, the community impact has been immeasurable. Each year we witness the ripple effect of the year before and that’s what motivates us to set our expectations high. We have truly experienced the power a small group of committed people can make in their local community by inspiring a spirit of service which will ultimately change the world.

Sonia Kotecha
Be the Change-Austin Team Coordinator

Stand together, Serve together

I arrived at Fazenda Boi Gordo (or Fat Cow Farm) in Campo Grande, Brazil the first few days after the New Year in 2010. I spent the next four weeks as a volunteer, working on the vegetable garden, getting to know the towns people, and eating chili peppers which always went unsold. The farm was part of a community of recent migrants from the northeast of Brazil and immigrants from Japan. Both groups came for various reasons but overall in search of safety, work opportunity, adventure and a better life.  From waking each day before dawn, to eating lunch with workers and staff who spoke a mix of Japanese and Portuguese, I experienced a lifestyle and met people I would have never otherwise encountered.

Second to the spider webs that spanned 20 feet, the inspiration and connection I felt to the people I met on the farm is the most memorable part of that volunteer experience. The farm’s owner, Sergio, who emigrated from Japan in his early 20s, had the same favorite movie as my father (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a musical, western style romance comedy. I don’t think I need to explain why it was a hit in South Asia).  I felt an unexpected empathy with his children, who were still reconciling being between two cultures; an identity crisis that many of us children of immigrants experience. In four short weeks, I built relationships with people whose stories both touched me and connected with my own.

My farming stint, and other similar volunteer experiences increase solidarity, cross cultural understanding, and a sense of community between diverse individuals.  I feel a much deeper respect and connection to people who devote their lives to intense physical work such as farming, and immigrants/migrants from all backgrounds. I thought of the farmer and his family when I visited Japan the following year, and often when I buy fresh fruits and vegetables off the farm stands throughout California’s countryside.

I look forward to participating in my first Be the Change event this fall and having another opportunity to serve and build my community. Be the Change is an annual day of service, which SAALT coordinates, that has thousands of participants from across the United States. It is a response to Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”  For me, Be the Change is a chance to commit volunteer hours in solidarity with people around the country. More importantly, however, Be the Change gives me a chance to reflect on my vision for the future of our community, which is one of greater equality and meaningful relationships. To understand the role community service can have in my vision, I am taken back to my most influential and impactful volunteer experience: my time at Fazenda Boi Gordo.

In general, I think “being the change,” all the time can be a challenge, to say the least. My morning mantra, is hardly, “wake up, brush teeth, eat breakfast, be the change.” Usually, I don’t even make it to “eat breakfast,” before I look at my cell phone and rush out the door so I can make it to work on time. Furthermore, there are so many changes I would like to see in this world, I usually don’t know where to start. Yet, when I think of all the opportunities I’ve had to serve the community, and all the relationships I’ve built because of them, and I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I feel excited and refreshed by the people I’ve met, and everything I’ve learned through them.

We all know how important it is to give back to the communities that we live in, the communities that sustain and nurture us. In these last few sentences I could try my best to inundate you with the best scientific evidence, and statistics I’ve scrounged up on how community service increases levels of happiness. Or how each hour spent volunteering has an economic value of $22.14 (http://www.handsonnetwork.org/tools/volunteercalculator). There is no doubt that community service and volunteerism is part of the glue that holds this nation together. Yet, I think the most meaningful statement I can leave you with is that my experiences serving as a volunteer is the glue that binds me to my vision for the future. Each friendship made is a small step towards strengthening my community. Each experience inspires me and guides my life decisions. For example, without positive volunteer experiences, I would have never chose to spend this past year as an AmeriCorps Volunteer serving the South Asian immigrant community in Maryland, through SAALT.  All in all, I’m excited to participate in Be the Change 2013, and can’t wait to hear new stories, meet new people, and see how it will shape my future.

Avani Mody
Maryland Outreach Coordinator, AmeriCorps
SAALT