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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.


296, 297, 298 … oh shoot, where was I again? My heart drops; I lost my place. The large pile of small, engraved silver beads that once sat in my right hand now sits in the plastic bag in front of me, the ultimate count unknown. I pause for a moment, close my eyes, and let out an exasperated sigh. I glance at the clock to my left; it’s 11:30 AM on a Friday and the day has only just begun. Drawers upon drawers of beads, of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, sit behind me, waiting to be counted. I sullenly dump the plastic bag in front of me back into my right hand and count again from the beginning. 1, 2, 3…

My days working at my service placement often end up like this. There is always an abundance of work to be done, but that does not mean it is always the most exciting work to be doing. Whether it be manually entering receipts into an online database, taking inventory count of the raw materials and finished products in the office, or working long, quiet 8½ hour shifts at the organization’s newly opened retail store, it is easy for my mind to go blank, to switch to autopilot and, to even forget my purpose and motivation for being here.

When I started working at a jewelry company that aims to provide opportunities for girls working in Red Light Districts, I had incredible dreams and expectations of talking to the girls and learning their stories, helping make jewelry, and directly affecting people’s lives for the better. However, the reality of the situation is, I am in no way a professional trained in listening to and advising those with dark histories and I can barely string a simple line of beads without clumsily dropping them all on the floor. It takes years for one to be emotionally prepared and armed with the right skills to make the most positive and effective difference in such deep and heart wrenching situations. By jumping into such situations as young and inexperienced as I am, I would be putting great emotional strain on myself and those I interacted with along the way. I had to learn early on that in order to make a difference and be the best volunteer I could be, my year of service would have to take a much different form than I had originally expected.

So, as I patiently count each bead and place it into its rightful bag, my mind cannot help but ponder the answer to a seemingly impossible question: How can I align my current experience with my original expectations of doing service work?

It is easy to feel disconnected from the service aspect of my projects. However, if I consciously remind myself of the beneficiaries of my work, of those who are given new opportunities and new chances at living out their dreams, I realize that just because I cannot always see the direct impact of my work does not mean that the impact does not exist. Everything I do everyday, every data point I enter, bead I count, or hour I spend organizing inventory, is a crucial cog in the wheel that allows the organization to run smoothly.

With this clearer perspective, I begin to realize that acts of service are not always experiences that involve directly changing the world. Sometimes the most important acts of service are the ones often overlooked and less appreciated. Service can take the form of small, less glamorous jobs that are essential to fulfilling the greater mission. Knowing the exact count of every bead in the office, for example, may seem insignificant, but it saves money that can be used offering opportunities, positivity, and love to those who need it.

333, 334, 335… I pay more attention this time, 336, 337, 338. The last bead plops into the plastic bag. I sigh of relief, record the count on my spreadsheet and place the bag of beads back in its rightful spot in the inventory room, ready to be made into a beautiful piece of jewelry.