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timTim Dayton is used to working with youth. Having spent many years as a youth pastor, he now runs REACH in Roanoke, VA. REACH is, essentially, a service organization working primarily in Southeast Roanoke. Every summer, he brings in a number of interns, who help him run the program, and youth groups from all over the East Coast. These young people spend long days serving the people of Southeast. The interns spend hours directing projects and building relationships with community members. Meanwhile, the youth groups devote their time to fixing homes, cleaning up streets and serving meals, among other things.

However, Tim’s vision is to do much more than just fixing homes and serving meals. He wants REACH to create dramatic, permanent change in both those people providing the service and the communities being served. He wants to change mindsets and create an ecosystem of service. It is not about some people helping others. It is about everyone learning from and helping everyone else. This ecosystem is immensely hard to create. It requires trust, patience, strong relationships and hard work. But for Tim, service is at the center of everything. Truly, when you find a thriving place, it is almost sure to have an environment that values service.

What is REACH?

If I were to break it down to the very fundamental essence of what it is, I would have to say it’s service. What REACH believes is that people are happiest when they do for other people without any expectation of something in return. And so, at the very basic level, what REACH tries to do is have people get involved with service experiences. Doing something they love to do and beginning to understand what it means to feel like that.

[There are] three groups of people that we work with, or serve. We have the community itself, where we go and perform the service…We have a group of people who come from out of town, who sign up for these service experiences in the Roanoke Valley for a week at a time…The third is a group of young adults who want to give 12 weeks of their summer for some very intensive, 18 hour days of serving the community, serving the [youth groups] and serving each other.

What does REACH do?

1466102_635022139874307_241203881_nLet me answer that with a story. Some little old lady, usually a widow, is in a house that she owns, but can’t possibly take care of it by herself. So she gets ahold of us, we arrange for a group to come for a week and we go in and fix up the house. The roof was leaking, and then when we leave, the roof no longer leaks. We figure she’s great because all of her problems in the world are now solved, because the roof doesn’t leak. And aren’t we wonderful because we saved the day.

Through the years of being involved in that kind of service project, I began to realize that, although it was wonderful for her that her roof no longer leaked, the people who really seem to get the most out of those experiences were the people that came in and did the work. I discovered that we could change their lives on a more permanent basis than someone whose roof we fixed. Besides, that roof may leak again in four, five, six, seven years…So, although we lead service projects like repairing homes, we decided to emphasize teaching them the importance of serving and the joy that comes from it.

Why do think using interns is so important?

Two reasons, for what they get out of it, and for the difference they can make in the community.

First, if you really want to make a difference in somebody’s life and have them understand what it means to serve, you need longer than a week. You need to put more attention on the interns themselves. They are here for 12 weeks, working 18 hours a day, six days a week in the trenches. They see it and they feel it and they begin to grip, and understand, what it really means to serve and live in a community where you put everybody else first. Putting others before yourself can be a tough concept for them to grasp. I explain it to the interns this way. “Let’s say there are 15 of you. Some of you are going to look at it as if I’m telling you that you need to put the other 14 interns before yourself and that kind of stinks. While some of you will look at it like there are 14 other interns that are putting you first. Meaning that now there are 14 people taking care of you.” So it kind of depends on your perspective.

And Second, since the interns are here for 12 weeks, there is time to form stronger relationships and connections; making it far easier to engage the local community in service experiences.

Why is service so important for creating community change?

None of us feel good about having to ask for help. And we’ve already established that all of us feel good about doing the helping. So, I began to realize that, if I really want to help you as an individual, I don’t need for you to come up to me and say “Oh Tim, I’m going to lose my house if you don’t come fix it.” I need to actually go up to you, and say “Hey, Brad could you do something for me. I have this need. Could you help me out?” Now, you are the one in service and you begin to feel good about yourself. When you feel good about yourself, you can start affecting change in your own life…

The real changes can now come with the community members themselves being a part of the service. [Realizing this] helped us to finally get to this place where we believe that REACH can make a huge difference in a community by going into the community, not to do for them, but to ask them to do for us. Now that’s the tricky part. No one wants to be used and I don’t need to ask you to do something you don’t care about.

The joy of serving in full effect. (Source: REACH)

The joy of serving in full effect. (Source: REACH)

How important are relationships?

Relationships are key, and a person’s story is the foundation of the relationship. What REACH has to do is first go in and learn their stories. Until I know your story, I really don’t know what your need is anyway. Consider the widower talked about earlier. In most cases, the real problem wasn’t the roof. The real problem was that she felt lonely, or hopeless, or she felt powerless to do anything about it. If I helped her with those situations, then the roof would’ve somehow been taken care of by her, or by a friend, or someone else in the community.

So, we also spend a lot of time trying to get people connected within the community so that they can serve each other. What we’ve discovered is that most communities, as they began to feel powerless, or they begin to feel like they are all alone or that no one really cares, become closed and they begin to know each other less and less. Neighbors don’t even know each other anymore. And so what we have to do with REACH is, as a first step before we do much of anything, is to find ways to get these neighbors engaged and get them to know each other….

So how does all this relate to fixing houses and stuff?

So full circle for us. We still fix houses and other service stuff; we are just doing it with a different reference or a different emphasis. Realizing that fixing homes, and all those things we do, are just tools for us to get to know you, to get engaged with you, to learn your story; we must now ask you to become involved and be the one providing the service. Because the real transformation, the only long-lasting transformation, is going to take place when it involves the people within the community that are affected using the resources that they have readily available.

How do you create these relationships that are so important?

Before any changes can take place whatsoever, we had to go in and establish trust. People who are a little gun shy, people who feel like the system has left them behind…You have to gain their trust. So you have to begin by saying you are going to do something and then actually do it. They can tell from your attitude and just the way you walk around the neighborhood. Do you drive in and drive out? Do you bike in and walk in? Are you actually in the neighborhood where they can see you or are you parachuted in and kind of hiding out and doing your thing? With REACH, for example, we knew it would take a while. I’m not sure I realized it would take three years. But we’ve had to spend three years establishing trust and becoming a part of the community.

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A flyer for one of the block parties (Source: REACH)

As we serve in the community, we learn stories and form relationships. We spend time with you, not just the week we work on your home, but my interns and myself…spend some time with you before and after the work is done. We have one or two interns who are specially trained in not only getting to know you, but discovering the things you like to do. Their job now is to ideally say “Hey, I hear you like to do…blogs. We have this neighborhood group that we’ve met here in the Belmont neighborhood and a blog would be a really cool thing for them to do so they could get in touch with, and get to know the rest of the community. Would you consider talking to them and maybe giving them some advice?” Ideally, of course, we’re thinking maybe he’ll go do it with them, become involved in his own community and start eliciting change around his passion. And he will get to feel good about that and make a difference in his community. We’re trying to figure out the assets and the resources in the community, one person at a time, and, then, somehow get those involved.

We offer block parties for the same reasons we do the service projects; to get to know, connect and engage folks. At these block parties there is free ice cream, and free hot dogs, and some music and some games. There’s no agenda, other than to come meet your neighbors. Our hope again is that we get to know you and we begin to form relationships and introduce you to people, as you introduce yourselves to us. We begin to get you connected, so that we can begin to get you to know and trust your own neighbors and feel more open to that.

What happens when you create a commitment to service in the community?

The first thing we do with our campers, and our interns, is we tell them to put their hands out in front of them, palms up, and say “Here are my hands, how can I serve”. We do that until the room was just so loud you can’t hear anything else. Then we talk about the fact that, when I did it by myself, it wasn’t all that impressive. When four or five of you joined in, that was a little more impressive. When the whole room did it, now that’s impressive…can you imagine if all of Southeast did it, or all of Roanoke? There wouldn’t be any needs. We’d all be taking care of each other. Now I don’t mean some kind of social upheaval, I just mean if we would all do what we could, when we could, we’d all get what we needed.

What lessons have you learned working to build strong communities?

We each have our assets and resources that we bring into play and all of them have to be tapped, if you want change that’s going to be sustainable throughout the community. I’ve learned it’s going to take longer than I thought. As I learned that, I realized I knew it would never be finished anyway. I’ve learned that everything, anything, is possible. That all of us sometimes know things [but] we need to be told them again and we need to see it really happening.

I’ve learned that, no matter what shape the community is in, the resources and people that are present must be looked at as assets and are more than enough to make a difference. That people really do care and want to help. And though we don’t all want to dig ditches, or play with children; we all want to be of value and we want to be needed.

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