The Helping Spirit

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Disasters have a way of bringing people together. It is one of the tougher elements of the human experience to understand – though difficult and painful events will occur, ones that we would never wish upon each other, our sense of community often becomes stronger because of them. There has been no better example than the flooding in Southern Alberta that has just taken place. Particularly interesting in the context of this column is the opportunity it can provide for youth and young adults to find sudden purpose, and a powerful sense of being members of a local community.

As I looked over some of the news stories and Facebook updates, something interesting was already occurring in Calgary hours after their flood began. Many families and young adults, including students, had begun opening their homes to those who had to evacuate their own. In an age where we are often encouraged as a society to keep to ourselves, distrust strangers, and think globally rather than locally, a simple and deeply meaningful way to be generous to others had emerged. Suddenly, without any pre-planning or stated intention to give back to one’s community, many young people in Calgary and no doubt throughout Southern Alberta had found themselves with a unique form of purpose: responding to critical needs in a time of crisis.

It brought back memories of a significant (though less serious, as it turns out) flood in the past, when I spent the summer of 1995 working at a summer camp near Bragg Creek, just a short drive from Calgary. A massive snowpack in the mountains was speedily melted by three days of warm temperatures and pouring rain. As we had just started our summer staff orientation, there were more than 20 energetic teenagers and young adults who were eager to lend a hand in filling and piling sandbags for the town of Bragg Creek. Without waiting for a request to assist, this wonderful group suggested we quickly pile into the camp vans and head into town, lending a hand any way possible.

Suddenly, plans to watch movies, play cards, or even go to bed early after a long day at the camp were forgotten. We all spent a cool, wet night doing some tough physical labour, and keeping the local river from destroying homes and businesses located nearby. However, as the evening wore on, not a single person complained or expressed a desire to return to camp. Quite the opposite: everyone had a chance to connect with people from the town whom they would not likely have met any other way, and the town residents were able to appreciate the giving nature of this group of young people. They even bought supper for the entire staff! The flood disaster, though devastating on one hand, had a silver lining that has likely stayed with some people to this day, I suspect.

In aboriginal traditions, the Circle of Courage can provide great insight into the needs of every person, and helps to explain the good that occurred that night almost 20 years ago. It shares how everyone has needs for belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. The more we are able to have each of these needs met in healthy ways, the greater the degree of health and happiness we can enjoy in our lives. The young people in this story found a sudden and unexpected outlet through which to channel their needs to be generous, while also building a healthy sense of community. At the time, I was puzzled how so many people who were already very tired after a few long days at camp suddenly found boundless energy to engage in physical labour.

As I look back, the answer is much clearer; when faced with a challenge which will involve using kindness and generosity as essential elements, many young people are far more ready to give through action than we may believe at first. When the kindness and generosity are not expected, it seems to be an extra motivator to give selflessly for many youth, and an invitation to enjoy a renewed sense of purpose, even if only for a few hours. Without doubt, selfless giving has been occurring all through Southern Alberta over recent days, and will likely continue for many more. Through this tragic event, many young people will grow in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives: an encouraging thought during a tough time.

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