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My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. If that feels sudden, it should, because finding out was certainly sudden for me. My mom: the woman who spends every weekend at the gym, the complete health nut who goes to every food store in the county to find the most cancer-preventive foods, who gets mammograms every year and reads every article on cancer prevention.
I found out the night before our group was going to hike the Grand Canyon. After finding out my mom was diagnosed, hiking one of the seven natural wonders of the world at that moment was nothing more to me than climbing into a hole. I wanted to go home; I wanted to be with my family. The feeling of helplessness, one of being hundreds of miles away, isn’t exactly what I was expecting after spending the first half of the trip taking pictures in national parks and going to Disney Land.
That night in the camp grounds, I sat out back behind the rooms. I wasn’t sure how to react to the news. I hadn’t told anyone yet, not my two friends from back home or any of the other 44 kids who I had grown close to over the weeks, which is why I was surprised that, on the night before such an anticipated event, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. In the midst of my lowest point, two friends had sought me out, one from back home, and one who I had only recently grown close to.
They didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. I had been thinking long and hard about returning home, after phone calls from my tearful younger sister, and after feeling like my being away was letting down my family.
One hand and two faces changed all of that. A feeling of belonging, of community, engulfed me. Here, in the middle of nowhere, at a time when I was unsure of everything I did, everything I felt, I was certain I belonged. Here were people who understood why I couldn’t help; people who had seen me help others along the way. And they cared.
Giving back to others is what a community does. Be it through donation or physical action, communities are held together by common goals, and those usually include helping those in need.
An entirely different aspect of community exists as well: that of giving to each other. A community’s sense of purpose is strongest in the face of adversity, in the face of tragedy and suffering.
For one summer of my life I was able to experience both these aspects of community, that of giving and that of giving back, and the way it enriched my life is evident in everything I do.
I spent the summer of 2006 on a bus with fifty-two kids and staff sponsored by the Jewish youth group United Synagogue Youth. USY sponsors many social action events, and through it I’ve had the opportunity to attend rallies in support of Darfur in Washington, DC, as well as more recently help build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Katrina ravaged New Orleans. The “USY on Wheels” bus trip, a six and a half week journey across the United States, also included social action events, such as attending drug rehab centers and donating to a shelter all of our remaining food the last day of the trip.
As is the case with all communities, the problem itself is only half the battle. True strength in community rests on the manner in which the problem is dealt with, through support and understanding. In my case, I was lucky enough to have a community strong enough to help me.
I may have gone home if not for my friends. And I would have been far worse off in dealing with my mom’s surgery and chemo treatments in the months to come if not for the support given to me by my friends on the bus, my community.
My parents taught me to pick my battles. This one I had no say in. And still, at the moment when I was down and most needed support, I had someone there to help me back up. Community is give and take, and the support that was given to me by my friends on this trip I will take with me for the rest of my life.