Paying It Forward

My name is Ryan Lum, I am the Chair of the Seattle AmeriCorps Collaborative. I personally am a State/National AmeriCorps serving with Habitat for Humanity Seattle King County that started my term in January of this year.

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One of the biggest comments that I feel you get as an AmeriCorps is: “I bet your family must be so proud of you,” which is something that I do want to address. I personally don’t come from a family of service minded people: all of my grandparents were immigrants to the United States; and my parents, aunts, and uncles took paths in the for-profit world. However, I did grow up in a culture that fostered compassion, empathy, and love.

The idea of family and community have been constant themes in my life. One of the most salient moments that solidified these values came when I was nine. It was in the fall (which is right around the corner), the weather was bad, my mom got sick with what she thought was the flu, and one night she went to sleep and never woke up. She had an undiagnosed case of diabetes, and went into a diabetic coma in her sleep and passed away suddenly but peacefully.

Conflict and stress is a really good test of community; and I can honestly say that my mother was a very kind person who always looked after others (often to the point of not looking after herself) that after her passing, her community of loved ones really folded their wings around my family. My aunts and uncles would come over and help teach my sister and I how to cook and clean (very much a teach a man to fish as opposed to feed a man a fish mentality); my teachers would make sure my sister and I got to and from school safely; friends (who I think are more like non-blood family) would watch over us in the evening in the form of free child care for my dad. And while I do agree that some of this was out of guilt for the unfortunate situation that had happened to my family, it was also rooting in altruism and doing things because they are the right thing to do.

When somebody does something nice for you, the automatic response is to return the favor in equal (or hopefully greater) form. However, as a nine year old kid, with no power or prestige or capital in the world; feeling all of this honest kindness and love, there was no way for me to repay that back. Faced with that dilemma, I felt (and still do feel) that the best way that I can honor that gift of compassion was to not pay it back, but to pay it forward. That idea is what brought me here and drives me through my AmeriCorps term.

One of missions of SAC is to foster solidarity among all of its AmeriCorps members (past and present). I look forward to more shared stories of service as a place where we can build empathy and remind us that we are all in this together.

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