Youth, Volunteer Hours, and Social Media: A Service Conundrum

Finding a Safe House

In 2015, my husband and I found ourselves briefly living in Ronald McDonald House. The previous nine months had been riddled with anxiety as I visited specialists two or three times a week throughout my pregnancy. After a series of complications and tests, doctors were preparing us for the worst.

youth, volunteer hours, & social media

In September, however, my beautiful baby boy was born with an unexpected capacity to breathe on his own. After a minor surgery, they monitored him in the NICU. They couldn’t tell us how long we would be there while they gave him medical attention—a couple of days? A couple of weeks? Probably more like several months. And so, we found ourselves living away from our daughter, in Ronald McDonald House, trying to keep it together. This was the hardest time in my life. I was fatigued, depressed and on edge.

Ronald McDonald House was a safe house for my husband and me in many ways. Without it I’m not sure how we would have managed. The staff was immensely supportive and it really felt like our home away from home. We spent most of our day at the NICU, being with our son. When we came back to Ronald McDonald it was usually for meals. Daily, folks donated dinner to Ronald McDonald House. It was usually pizza or sandwiches.

Service with Strings Attached

On one particular day, we arrived in the kitchen to find an entire Moe’s buffet complete with queso. We were beyond excited—in times like this, the littlest thing is worth celebrating. As we made our way into the kitchen, however, we noticed that there was a group of six or seven people we didn’t recognize standing around with name tags. It became clear that a department from a local corporation had donated the food and had decided to stick around. We tried to smile politely while making our way to the food—but as we sat down, we were joined by one of the visitors.

Dinner was usually our time to check-in with one another as husband and wife, to make plans for the next day—should we ask one of our parents to bring our daughter up for a visit?—and to make crude and inappropriate jokes (when we’re in survival mode, we revert to humor neither of us are proud of). But this particular evening, dinner was a time to answer a stranger’s list of inquiries about our son. Things that were so raw and sensitive for me, that it was painful to discuss with a stranger (add in post-partum hormones and you have yourself all sorts of fun). She was well-meaning, and I knew that, but remember that Ronald McDonald House was our home. Imagine a stranger walking into your home, sitting down at your dining room table, and asking a long list of personal questions. And because she had volunteered her time and money, we felt obligated to answer. It felt, well—icky.

A Service Conundrum

It’s been nearly two years since that experience, and Friday night I found myself with a group of seven middle and high school students from my youth group preparing and serving dinner to folks experiencing homelessness. We do this on a monthly basis and every time I’m asked to be sure to take photos either for social media or for school projects—and I always feel… stuck.

The clients congregate in a room outside of the kitchen at the shelter. There is a large opening that serves as a window into the kitchen. This is where clients line up for their meal, and as we cook the meal, we can be seen. As the kids prepare the food and I meander around the kitchen interacting with them and supervising them, every time I think about lifting up my phone to take a picture, I notice our guests on the other side of the barrier, and I stop myself. In many ways, this, at least for the day, is their home—their safe place, their refuge. Just like Ronald McDonald House was mine. This shelter is their place to stay warm or to cool down, depending on the time of year. A place to get a meal or get a shower. A place to be in community with people going through something similar. For many of them, this is the hardest, lowest, darkest time of their life.

Obligatory Service

Something about taking a picture of a 15-year-old kid who skipped his golf lesson to come serve dinner, or the 17-year-old kid who is adding up her service hours for graduation, feels like I’m trivializing the experiences of those we are there to serve. It feels dehumanizing in many ways—and isn’t the point of serving this population to add dignity to their lives? Not take it away even more?

At this particular shelter, after dinner is done, there are always two clients who are responsible for cleaning the floors and taking care of the trash in the kitchen. While we finish up dishes and do some cleaning up, those on duty come in to start taking care of their responsibilities. On this particular night, as we’re wrapping up the evening, three or four kids come up to me to ask me to sign for their volunteer hours… in front of people we just served. For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

And so I struggle. What is a youth minister to do? Not sign for volunteer hours? Refuse to take pictures?

For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

When Service Becomes about Us

Especially during Lent, I am reminded of the passage from Matthew, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (6:1).”

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food? On the one hand, these photos are a handy tool for engaging parents and parishioners from the church in what the youth are doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky. Further, allowing kids to participate in service projects for the youth group so that they can turn in their required service hours for school and other programs is a great way to pull kids into what you’re doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky.

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food?

Living as Disciples

Don’t get me wrong—providing opportunities for our youth to serve their community is essential to their spiritual development. I want to know how we can provide these experiences for our youth so that they’re truly living out their lives as disciples, while adding dignity to the lives of others instead of taking it away.

How do you keep this balance? I don’t have any answers; at least not yet, but let’s get a conversation going and maybe we can come up with some helpful solutions together!


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

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