Friday, July 31, 2009

Service by Example

This week started out in a very hot church in Campbell, where I attended the memorial service for a relative. Carol Shortt had spent half of her seventy-one years battling the dreaded autoimmune disease lupus. An added benefit of attending the service was to experience her persona when she was healthy and whole. Carol had a loving and supportive husband who was determined to provide a decent quality of life for his beloved. Even when her body was nearly crippled, he helped maintain her desire to serve in the community by regularly driving her to a nearby nursing home to play the piano for the residents there. He said that even when her hands could no longer play all of the notes, Carol would sit and the keyboard and try to keep the melody. I’m sure the residents at the care facility did not care that the music was imperfect, just that she was still there as always, giving what she had to offer.

I was invited to share in the life celebration of another South Bay stalwart yesterday, an even larger gathering to honor Lynne Shawhan, who died at age 53 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. I did not personally know Lynne, but she is a member of my close friend’s family. I was moved by the depth of sorrow for the loss of this woman in so many lives she touched. Her gift was friendship.

Each of the joyful eulogists maintained that indeed she was Lynne’s best friend. I was told that she came to know all the parents of her children’s friends by first talking to them in the bleachers at their high school sporting events. From the powerful impressions at her service, I perceive Lynne Shawhan was someone who never took herself too seriously and always had time to strike up a conversation with anyone in her midst. How often do we selectively pick and choose who we will open ourselves up to, who we will allow into our lives? Lynne had no fear of the human race, she took it all in, seeing the good in others.

Now toward the end of the week I reflect on my own attitudes and tendencies to become overwhelmed and stressed out, with these two great ladies having touched my soul. I feel privileged to have been given a glimpse of what is truly important, once again. As Mom observed on the way home from Carol’s service, "No mention has ever been made about all the material goods a person has left behind—only the impressions they have left." Sometimes we don’t do enough to reach out, and other times we may do too much. Carol and Lynne seemed to have found the balance where true happiness lies, neither of them complaining about the hands they were dealt. I’m reminded that what we give is the way we will be remembered, not by what we've accumulated. It’s not what we have or what we do that matters most; but what we do with it, how we do it, and for whom that really counts.


She volunteered her time to her church and Convalescent Hospital Ministry for the last 18 years coordinating religious music programs. In lieu of flowers, the family request donations be made in Carol's name to Convalescent Hospital Ministry 65 W. Rincon Ave. Campbell, CA 95008. (


During her illness, she endured many ups and downs, but through it all maintained her incredible sense of humor. Even when in pain, Lynne was more concerned with the happiness of those she loved. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in Lynne's name. (

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Serve?

In my capacity working on a high school campus and sharing community service ideas with our students, I often hear them ask if volunteering is a graduation requirement. Although there are fifteen hours of service as part of the district’s Living Skills class, technically there is no absolute requirement that service be performed to graduate. But, for some reason Palo Alto High School students demonstrate an intense level of social awareness. As mentioned in my previous blogs, our students are involved in everything from the local food bank to volunteering for relief organizations in Sri Lanka. I often consider the reasons why young people become interested in service, and how they might be motivated to share their talents in the community.

Scholars on the subject of volunteering have defined some of the driving forces to include:

· Acknowledgment of contributions

· Being part of a group

· Improved self-confidence

· A sense of accomplishment

· Opportunities to share proficiencies and talents

My own observations in collaborating with dozens of students on group and individual projects further demonstrate the motivating factors:

· A chance to explore interests and passions

· An outlet for creative self-expression

· A forum for connecting with the world outside of school

Some students are merely inspired by outside individuals, even celebrities, to perform service. Several notables have promoted the concept this summer. Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver on June 22, 2009 joined forces to encourage the spirit of volunteerism across America in conjunction with their appearances at the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. Former South African President Nelson Mandela, now 91 years old, called on people worldwide to do good works in celebration of his birthday. People were asked to spend 67 minutes volunteering on July 18th, as a symbol of the 67 years Mandela spent campaigning against apartheid. A concert to kick off Mandela Day was held in New York with artists Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Aretha Franklin performing. Superstars like these are sure to inspire dedication to a cause.

Occasionally, I have the pleasure to meet with students who are neither driven by a sense of obligation, or outside inspiration, but by a simple and sincere desire to make a difference. Those are the students who look inside themselves to discover a connection between their unique talents and a pressing need in their community. They take the initiative to develop projects with little or no direction, just because they know it will be helpful to a cause that catches their interest. This type of service is always the most gratifying; it is also the most challenging, requiring us to go outside of our comfort zones.

Four students at our school are working overtime this summer to make their unique contributions in their areas of interest:

· Veronica Dao: organizing information about the community gardens of the Peninsula for student volunteer opportunities

· Charles Zhang: recording the volunteer activities and planning a searchable database of our students’ volunteer experiences

· Michael Abrams and Renee Singh: creating “Paly Environmental Initiative,” a resource to enlighten our school community and to provide free plants to every classroom

These young people and more have been motivated from within, and have taken the initiative to contribute their talents to the betterment of the high school community. Their only recognition comes from the satisfaction of knowing they are creating something that was not there before. Whether we do service by requirement, by inspiration from others, or an internal drive, we can each make a difference when we do good works.

Service Organizations Promoted by Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Shriver

· Corporation for National and Community Service:

· Points of Light Institute:

· California Volunteers: