We should be helping people to help people, not to feel good about ourselves

Rebecca Lee

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Every year for the past seventeen years, the senior class has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a home for a deserving family. The year-long fundraising efforts, from Lunch on the Lawn to the Winter Carnival, succeed in bringing together a class that averages one thousand students.

In addition, all students are asked to physically contribute to the construction of the house. Habitat for Humanity gives seniors the opportunity to take part in a cause from start to finish.

Most notably, New Trier’s partnership with Habitat challenges young people of the North Shore to step outside of the bubble, within which we rarely have conversations about historical housing discrimination, or the financial significance of home ownership.

As a senior, I’m excited to play a role, no matter how small that role may be, in such an endeavor.

Two weeks ago, during advisery, all seniors attended an assembly hosted by Habitat for Humanity. The speakers blasting Kelly Clarkson and the slideshow of smiling students planting flowers all succeeded in exciting the senior class.

But then the PowerPoint ended and the upbeat music faded, and the executive director of Habitat for Humanity Lake County came onstage with the recipient family.

As the senior class, one thousand largely white and largely wealthy eighteen year-olds, looked on at the members of the family, both of whom are black, a feeling of discomfort grew in the pit of my stomach.

I recall that they stood to the side as the director praised us for “changing their lives,” as though they were not standing right there, as though they could not speak for themselves.

Then, when the couple was handed the microphone, there were what felt like several minutes of awkward pauses, punctuated by sympathetic noises and random applause from the crowd. It became clear that no one had prepared them to speak.

At this point, I felt not only uncomfortable, I felt deeply unsettled. I felt as though two people who had proved themselves through a rigorous application process were being pressured to now justify their situation to unfamiliar teenagers, the vast majority of whom have never paid a bill.

As I walked out of the auditorium and later sat in my classes, I overheard students making comments like, “That was so cute” and “New Trier is amazing.”

It seemed to me that the assembly and the spectacle we made out of poverty and the pats on the back had more to do with the image of social service than the social service itself.

Let me clarify that I, like most seniors, found the assembly to be overall exciting and educational and fun. The student leaders, all of whom deserve recognition for their dedication to community service, spoke eloquently and prepared an engaging presentation.

This is by no means an attack on any student or staff member working on Habitat for Humanity, nor is it a criticism of the project itself.

I also acknowledge that the family may have had a totally different experience than I did on Wednesday morning. I do not attempt to speak for them.

I can only imagine how emotional and nervous they must have felt to share such a personal story with an audience of nearly one thousand strangers.

I also genuinely hope that they left the assembly with a positive impression of New Trier seniors, all of whom I do believe have only good intentions.

That said, many of my peers and I feel uncomfortable with and even frustrated by the presentation of Habitat for Humanity as well as that of other social services at New Trier.

It frustrates me that others call those served by organizations like Habitat for Humanity “cute”. They’re not puppies; they are working adults and students and taxpayers and parents.

It frustrates me that beyond the fundraising events, there seems to be no time set aside for students to personally reflect about the importance of service to others, or to have critical discussions about economic inequality in the United States. It frustrates me that we feel the need to purchase tee shirts and order bagels and create Kahoot games to encourage students to care about a world other than their own.

All of us as young adults have a civic duty to care about other people and to actively seek out ways to help other people, especially when we get nothing out of it.

That’s the point.

Helping other people should be about other people, not about me or the Instagram I can post or the box I can check on my college application.

Our work for Habitat for Humanity should be about understanding and serving a community outside of our own, not about us or the prizes or the praise. Our support of the recipient family should be totally and unequivocally about the members of the family.

The vast majority of the time, New Trier gets it right. But this time, I think we’re getting it really wrong.

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