Folded Paper Bags


For about three hours every Sunday, I seriously regret not choosing to learn Spanish when language studies began back in middle school. “Esto es dos?” the lady across the counter asks in concern. “Tres. Perdón,” I say, wishing I just could go back to folding paper bags so as not to embarrass myself further.

She continues, but I admit that I understand very little of what she said; I just keep smiling vaguely and finally gesture to my manager as he makes his way in the door.

“Tres. Lo siento. Talk to Michael.”

As much as the language barrier is a hassle- I complain without actually doing anything about it, of course- I’ve gotten very good at communicating via motions supplemented by a very limited vocabulary. I’ve had entire conversations about whether or not the heater in front of the register is for sale (it isn’t), or whether or not our assorted collection of flashlights actually works (it depends).

The thrift store at which I volunteer is associated with Capital Caring, a hospice service for ailing elders around the DC area. All profits from sales and donations go exclusively to supporting the program. Sunday mornings are usually pretty slow, but I hardly ever walk out before we’ve made more than three hundred dollars. There’s nothing more satisfying than working on days we’ve made over four hundred and knowing that I had played a part in bringing some good back into the world.

Believe me, from personal experience, there is no excuse for not participating in community service for even just a few hours a week. There are opportunities all over the place, all waiting for volunteers to jump in and help out whenever they can.

While Capital Caring and its associated thrift stores are limited to the DC area, most retirement homes offer opportunities for the younger generation to come in and clean, play games, and generally keep the residents company for a few hours a day. I have a friend who frequently plays piano in a neighborhood establishment and chats with the eclectic population within its walls.

For those more at home with children, I would suggest searching out a tutoring or day-care program in your area. My old elementary school had a program where high school students came after our school day and patiently worked through homework with us.

These kids were my absolute idols. It was aw-inspiring being able to interact with someone who had lived so much longer than I but wasn’t a teacher.

To help at a day-care, talk to the director or principal at the center and offer your services. Make sure to have someone to use as a reference, just in case, and a résumé detailing your work experience if you’re feeling like an over-achiever.

Community service is not just caring for humans, however. Animal lovers can help at the local pound or pet rescue center and keep the animals clean and fed during their stay. I do not have as much experience in this area, but a friend of mine previously lent her services here and absolutely loved it.

I’m only touching on the amount of places desperate for amiable help. Libraries, churches, and soup kitchens will all gladly take you on. A great place to look for more specific opportunities in your area would be here; just type in what you’re interested in and suggestions for volunteer work near you will pop up.

Still, most people are aware of volunteer opportunities in their communities and simply choose not to participate. Until I got work at the thrift store, I was certainly one of those people. It seemed like a lot of work for little gain. I’d rather get a job that pays. I just didn’t have enough time.

None of these excuses is enough to justify avoiding community service. With volunteerism, you can usually set your own hours to accommodate for school or a separate job. You can also gain great experience in a field of interest and add it to your resume.

At my thrift store, I get to organize shelves, design window displays, and provide customer service and other retail responsibilities. The only difference is that I get paid in Diet Cokes and “thank you!”s instead of cash.

Not convinced yet?

The impact of community service on those who volunteer has been extensively studied and determined to be very rewarding. Not only do volunteers have a more positive outlook on life and low rates of depression, but there is also a link between community service and physical well-being. Volunteering relaxes the body and combats stress, and volunteers will often live longer than the rest of a population. Of course, giving back also helps the state of your local community, and you’ll be able to take real pride in your accomplishments.

After dealing with the language barrier between my customer and I, I smile and say good morning as an older man comes in the door. I recognize his friendly grin from previous Sundays. He studies the sign at the front carefully, tapping at his chin in consideration. “Everything half-off today?”

“Yes, sir.”

He wheezes a little laugh. “Does that include you?”

“What?” I say, faking a scandalized gasp, “no!”

He’s already making his way into the store, chuckling at his own joke. I shake my head at his strange sense of humor and move to fold up the new paper bags coming my way. The experiences I have, the people I meet, and the family I’ve created with the sweet older women who work beside me seem as they’ve been with me all my life. In fact, I can barely remember how I went through life without these three precious hours every Sunday. And so, I beseech you- volunteer. Make this world a better place, one folded paper bag at a time.

Emma Paquette
One of those quiet advocates that the world add just a few more hours to the day. Even if I don't live in the District, I'm close enough to pretend that I do.
Emma Paquette
Emma Paquette

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