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. Shops, cafes and bars line the street, all of which are regularly visited by the students of the university. Few; however, would recognize the name of the craft and tailoring shop – the source of his recent controversy.

Miss Owner placed an ad for help on the internet; she hoped desperately that someone with a little spare time could offer pro bono support. She started a crafting business many decades ago; it was all she knew. Miss Owner was unsure that she could manage for another year – forget retiring comfortably.

Help. . .

Just three months prior, in February, Miss Owner fired her only full-time employee, unable to manage increasing costs of employment. Miss Owner’s shop was a favorite of local craft-makers, and served as a regular meeting place for such types to share projects and ideas. Those who lived further than walking distance; however, found the Michael’s craft store down the road to offer greater variety at generally better prices.

A young man – a fraternity man at the local university – walked into the shop in search of acrylic paint a few days after Miss Owner placed her ad. He was tasked with designing and painting several backdrops for their annual lip-sync competition. The performance was hours away, and her shop was the closest source of paint. He had seen it many times in passing, but this was his first purchase from Miss Owner’s local business.

Fraternity Man was in a hurry, but noticed a stumbling, seemingly overwhelmed woman behind the counter. It took a few minutes for Miss Owner to finish restocking boards of rolled fabric to their place before she returned to the counter to ring him up.

A realization. . .

“I could easily have pocketed this. She never would have noticed,” thought the young man.

“That will be $6.47 after tax,” she said. To which the Fraternity Man replied, “Would you like some help?”

She felt blindsided. Had he seen her ad? Or was it just too obvious that Miss Owner was in over her head? Her store was built on a love for crafts, a small business loan, and support from her late mother. Managing a niche business; however, is tough work.

“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 it open. She placed the tubes of acrylic paint inside, folded the lid and stapled it with a receipt. She didn’t bother asking whether customers wanted a receipt anymore —  she needed something to feel standard and simple.

“We do community service all the time for my fraternity,” said the young man. “If you record my hours for my adviser, then I’ll do it for free.”

Community Service. . .

What seemed to be common sense to Fraternity Man, and to Miss Owner as well, was that any act of volunteerism to benefit a local community, would be considered an act of service to a community.

After all, there were still two part time employees in 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. All three would benefit immensely from someone generously offering free labor with nothing but a request to log his hours in return.

The customers would also benefit. Many grew up attending classes at Miss Owner’s shop, and her skills as an instructor were unmatched. She provided high quality material and volunteered her services for local events or celebrations. Most of the community was familiar with her work, even if they were not familiar with her shop. Why let that go to waste when help was knocking on her door?

Fraternity Man made visits to the shop twice a week for the final months of the school year. He helped clean, restocked items, and even made the front window more appealing to the college students – highlighting a 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 in these trying times. But, his work was nothing more than a kind gesture to his campus’ fraternity/sorority community.

Another chapter held a Teeter-Totter-A-Thon, and was published in the Greek Life Newsletter. Fraternity Man saved a business, and was ignored by all except his own chapter for volunteering at a for-profit institution.

What’s in a 501(c) classification, anyway?

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 service to our communities, and that service is often limited to non-profit corporations. Whether raising money or volunteering one’s time, Americans have, consciously or not, eliminated the concept of a “for-profit” business being worthy of “help.”

Maybe we believe 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 each element of a community is a part of that community. Why doesn’t community service apply to a business or cultural community? Why must it be limited to an IRS classification?

Would you 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.)

Many shame the concept of unpaid internships, perhaps we can open our eyes to the idea of internships as a service to small or local businesses. In the same way that service to a nonprofit will theoretically build one’s integrity and/or their professional experience, so too can volunteering one’s time for a for-profit business in need.

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