Serve Where You Are Needed – “Fraternity Service Man,” A Story.

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The boy could not quite grasp why his entry did not qualify.

Had he not put in the proper effort? Did he misread the expectations? Was this a miscommunication or too direct a communication?

For three months, the Fraternity Man visited a small shop on the northern end of his college town strip. Shops, cafes and bars line the street, all of which are visited fairly regularly by the students of the university, but few would recognize the name of the craft and tailoring shop – the cause of his confusion.

In a desperate plea, Miss Owner reached out to the empty space of internet ad placements, hoping that curious eyes would offer support. She had started a business many decades ago, it was all she knew, and Miss Owner was unsure that she could manage for another year, let alone long enough to retire comfortably.

Just three months prior, in February, Miss Owner fired her only full-time employee, unable to meet increasing costs of employment. Miss Owner’s shop, a staple of the crafty, local business supporters of college town, simply couldn’t muster the demand to offer a wide range of products to consumers equally satisfied with ordering their goods through or at the Michael’s just 10 minutes down the road (at 35 mph).

Within days, a mortal saint arrived. A young man, a fraternity man, at the university around which the town was built walked into the shop in search of acrylic paint. His fraternity chapter had embarked on an ambitious plan to design and paint several backdrops for their annual lip-sync competition, and touch ups were required with hours to go until the performance.

He was in a hurry, but noticed the stumbling, seemingly confused woman behind the counter. It took a couple minutes for Miss Owner to finish the task at hand, restocking boards of rolled fabric to their place after cutting them for another customer, before she returned to the counter to ring him up.

“I could easily have pocketed this. She never would have noticed. . . This place won’t survive the year.”

“That will be $6.47 after tax”

“Would you like some help?”

She was blindsided. Was it that obvious? Was she, Miss Owner, the creator of a long-time local business, so clearly out of her element in the store she built on a small loan and her own sense of craft?

“I do, but I had to let go of my only full-time employee a few days ago. People aren’t running to local shops for crafts nowadays.”

Miss Owner’s hand reflexively reached for a small paper bag. She grabbed a lip of the open end and, with a flick of the wrist, popped open the bag, placed the tubes of acrylic paint inside, folded the lid and stapled a receipt to the bag. She didn’t bother asking whether customers wanted a receipt anymore — it was easier to give one to everyone and she needed something to remain simple.

“I’ll do it for free. We do service in the fraternity all the time – just record my hours for our advisor.”

What seemed to be common sense to the boy, and the woman as well, was that any act of volunteerism to benefit a local community, whether helping reduce the cost of running a business or replanting a scenic community garden, would be considered an act of service to a community.

After all, there were still two part time employees in the shop, each helping make ends meet through their evenings and weekends at the shop, each allowing Miss Owner some time to spend with her newly-born grandchild. All three, Miss Owner and the two part-time employees, needed the shop to remain open.

So too did many of the college town’s citizens, many of which learned to craft at the shop back when Miss Owner had time to host classes twice a week. Others gathered in the shop regularly to browse the items and talk among friends with similar interests. It was as much a niche community center as it was a venture for profit.

For three months then, Fraternity Man visited the craft shop three times weekly. The boy helped clean the shop, restocked its items, and took over making the front window more appealing to the college students, highlighting Miss Owner’s student discount and embroidered Fraternity/Sorority apparel.

As payment, Miss Owner would tally the Fraternity Man’s hours and write a letter expressing her thanks for his support of her shop in these trying times. His work would go unnoticed by the wider fraternity/sorority community. The chapter one house over held a Teeter-Totter-A-Thon and made the Greek Life Newsletter; he helped save a business and was ignored for volunteering at a for-profit institution.

We speak often of the struggle faced by entrepreneurs in this country. Different stats float around for the closure rate of small businesses, but most agree that a vast majority fail to make it past their first five years. Sticking around for 10 years is exceptional.

As fraternity men and women, we promote our service to our communities, and that service is often limited to non-profit organizations. Whether raising money or volunteering one’s time, Americans have, consciously or not, eliminated the concept of a for-profit business being deserving of our help.

Maybe this stems from an idea that it is less moral to help those who make a profit off of what they do or to help those who are not on the extremely unlucky end of the spectrum of suffering, but that does not mean that we cannot be open-minded regarding what it means to “serve one’s community.”

If a student approached you with a story similar to that above, would you not consider Fraternity Man’s actions to be a service to his community?

Fraternities host teeter-totter-a-thons all the time. They raise quite a bit of cash, but are they more a service than than helping save a few jobs or a business? (Yes, that’s me; I know I’m extra.)

Would we rather a business close than receive the unpaid help it needs? As we begin to shame the concept of unpaid internships, perhaps unpaid service is a better-fitting alternative. In the same way that service to a nonprofit will theoretically build one’s integrity and possibly their professional experience, so too can volunteering one’s time for a for-profit business in need.

I don’t ask that you change your mind regarding what you consider to be “community service.” If you disagree with my ideas then continue to disagree with them.

To those who agree that service can extend beyond tax-exempt, non-profit organizations, I just ask that you serve as you best know how to serve.

The prerequisite to volunteering your service can be that you help someone in need, regardless of their or their organization’s legal classification.