Community Service or Engagement

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William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”  Amazing how something written 422 years ago is so pertinent today, and to teenagers at that. Recently, I had an animated conversation with some 4-H members on volunteer work they have had, and will have, the opportunity to complete. I found their insights and passion for their point of view refreshing.

To give you a better understanding of our conversation, let’s use United Way’s Day of Caring, which happened last week, as the example. This massive countywide undertaking was filled with projects for folks of all ages to volunteer for, give back to our community, and make an incredible impact. In this story, that act of service is our rose. Some people refer to this service, or rose, as volunteer service or community service and, now, community engagement. Are you scratching your head and wondering what the difference is? Welcome to my world and where this conversation starts.

In my mind, no matter what you call that rose, it is just as sweet, because it positively impacts our community. However, to the group I was talking with, what you call that rose may not change its smell but does impact its beauty. To them, and by definition, the three terms of volunteer service, community service, and community engagement do not mean the same thing, although they do agree the outcome is technically the same. Volunteer service is time given freely, whether or not it impacts the community. They argued community service means giving of your time freely to impact the community, but by almost all definitions means giving back for punitive means, such as punishment for a crime. If you look it up, they are right. Community engagement is a dynamic partnership of working with groups to address issues that will make the group, and community, stronger. In other words, this act of service, or rose, is not as positively beautiful when you refer to it as anything other than community engagement.

That being said, and knowing that I am willing to argue a point to the bitter end, these teens came up with one more argument that might make community engagement even sweeter. It is a proactive term that does not discriminate based on age. That argument got my attention like a thorn in my finger. Many organizations require volunteers to be 18 or 21 years of age. During the hurricane, many 4-H’ers could not be official volunteers because of their age. If they do community service projects, people will think they are being punished or forced to give back when it is the exact opposite; they want to give back and make as much of an impact as grownups. By partaking in community engagement activities, they are being proactive and taking on leadership while being recognized for their positive impact on the community, and they are doing it for no monetary gain. It also makes the service more impactful for them. So by this argument, I am willing to say a rose by any other name may smell as sweet but isn’t quite as beautiful or engaging as the rose that we will now call community engagement in 4-H.

For more information, contact Shea Ann DeJarnette, Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent, at 910-671-3276, by email at, or visit our website.

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