Carleton’s ACT center organizes many opportunities for Carls who want to take a breather from the college bubble once in a while and get out into the wider Northfield community (where, among other things, you don’t have to wait until 10:30am to eat on Sundays. #collegeproblems).
Every Sunday for about an hour, I visit West Cottage at the Three Links Care Center a few minutes away from school. Last Sunday, we made Valentine’s Day cards for the residents. I was expecting a response something like a parent appreciating someone else’s kid’s drawing, but the praise and reward was much sincerer and greater.
Tears seeped from Shirley’s eyes as her trembly hands, marked with purple flowers of age, tried to wipe them away. Joyce exclaimed, “Well, that’s so nice! Isn’t that nice?” too many times to everyone in sight, smiling as determinedly as the winter sun. Xiujun flashed one of her rare smiles and rattled off some very fast but happy-sounding Chinese (which unfortunately none of us understood). Herta thanked us kindly and promptly returned to complaining about how hungry she was, as she is wont to do. For the rest of the visit, their words about “what nice girls” we were weaved in and out of our conversations--a few cards that took 30 minutes at most for us to make meant an incredible amount to our adopted grandparents. As Maggie, a fellow freshman who volunteers at West Cottage with me, put it, “It was one of those Sundays where I wasn’t sure if I could spare the time, but it’s visits like these that make it all worth it.”
Through the College Buddies program, I recently began visiting a nonverbal girl around the same age as me at the Laura Baker School adjoining Carleton’s Arboretum. I have no experience making friends without being able to use words or any form of standardized communication (isn’t it hard enough to make new friends even when you can use words?), so it’s amazing to see how my CB communicates in incredibly subtle ways. A barely discernible contraction of her eyebrows signals stormclouds and trouble ahead, while an equally tiny upturn at the corners of her mouth indicates an instant of happiness. Although as far as I know she only produces variations on one sound, it’s harder to tell how much she understands because, for example, she looks incredibly amused when she overhears her teachers discussing something naughty she did earlier in the day.
One of my other favorite programs is visiting Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Faribault, although I only get to go about as often as I see Schiller’s bust around campus (once a term), since I rely on the program directors (who can only take a few people at a time) to drive me. We’re not allowed to have pets on campus (other than fish, we’re limited to random cat sightings, squirrels, bats(!) and the occasional rabbit or badger/big round brown creature(?!)), so going out to Faribault is one of the most foolproof ways to de-stress here that I’ve found. Nothing about it is altruistic in any way, as one of the directors described it, since animals are so liberal with their love.
But now that I think about that statement, community service is never truly altruistic, is it? If you do it right, you always get something valuable back.