“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer
Service uplifts all of us. I do not buy the dogma that service, to be legitimate, must come from a selfless place because service has the capacity to remake those of us with low self-esteem, cynicism, anger, and any form of disillusionment.
Maya Angelou said, “When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”
Service is a key ingredient in personal transformation. Even a self-loathing individual who commits to service will wake up one morning to find that they like or even love the person they have become. On a spiritual level, we become what we pay attention to.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
Right now, this is the kind of message that I believe many of us need to hear. Our culture has accumulated quite a bit of poison, and it is happening at the very time when we have much to be grateful for.
Community service and giving elevate entire corporate cultures and individual career paths. When we bring community service into an organization, it binds that workplace together – and it binds us all to something greater than ourselves.
I have had the privilege of working with many of our country’s great leaders. Among those leaders was Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing. The organization provides housing to more than 3,000 of Los Angeles’s homeless, primarily families. Stephanie’s courage to change and grow is inspiring. When a client discusses charitable giving, I routinely recommend they donate to LA Family Housing because their money will be used wisely and with complete integrity. Stephanie has devoted her entire professional life to underserved populations, families with low incomes, and the homeless.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to Stephanie about her career of community service. What follows is a transcript of that conversation:
David Harder: What role does LA Family Housing play in Los Angeles?
Stephanie Klasky-Gamer: We provide a unique role in that we demonstrate homelessness is a solvable problem. We can end it. We have developed the flexibility and creativity to meet homelessness in all of its various stages, and these solutions are becoming templates for homeless organizations throughout the country.
DH: You bring up the “diversity of examples” in homelessness. What do you mean by that?
SKG: We serve the single father who is facing homeless for the first time. That father has different needs than a family that has been homeless for years.
Here is one of our more recent examples: We were invited by a council member in the Sunland/Tujunga area to visit the Tujunga Wash. This area was filled with long-term homeless. Most of them were older. Many were couples and were accompanied by pets. There was a rural dynamic that was vastly different than our urban homeless. We built housing in the area and welcomed them indoors. We constructed the accommodations to support couples. We built a dog park.
DH: You “welcomed” them. What is difference between that and just “putting up” with them?
SKG: Most organizations use the word “accommodate.” When we make people feel welcome, that dynamic removes fear. Trust and respect opens doors for them to move forward. Some of our clients survived 15 and 16 years in the outdoors. By giving them respect and trust, they are able to become stable far more quickly.
DH: How were you influenced and shaped?
SKG: (laughing) You shaped me!
Also, my family was all about social justice. I grew up in an environment where caring for others was the norm. Everything that happened afterward [and] all of the people that came into my life to support my development emerged from the kernel of how I was raised.
DH: How does charitable work and community service impact individuals and organizations?
SKG: Our culture conditions us to look the other way. We pay a high price for that reaction, not just as a culture but in terms of personal awareness and full living. There are 58,000 homeless in greater Los Angeles. Most people feel they can’t help. But when we become involved, there is invariably a wonderful surprise. We open our eyes. We realize we can help. That very process elevates us as human beings.
The same event happens within the organizations that support us. The luxury real estate company Partners Trust donates money and time to LA Family Housing. [Its] associates are encouraged to contribute a portion of each sale to the cause. They also participate in events with our clients, and this is bringing a new dimension to their corporate culture. These are highly successful business people who are extending themselves into being part of a community solution. Any company that actively supports charitable causes upgrades [its] culture in powerful ways.
Consider how this can change our lives on a daily basis. Rather than walking past that homeless person in the parking lot, the people that are active in LA Family Housing often stop and ask for their name. They connect and they are no longer afraid to look.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.