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"If we fail to teach young people empathy and care, we risk devolving into a society where it is normal to ignore suffering, or worse, normal to be unable to perceive it in others," Thomas says.

For Schweitzer Fellow M. Kate Thomas, partnering with Sustainable Rutland to mobilize a group of youth volunteers to assist local elders with outdoor tasks is about more than just yardwork. It’s about building a stronger community through cross-generational conversation and collaboration—and promoting the simple idea that if you spot a neighbor who needs help, you should take action instead of turning your head.

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

For some time, my partner Dave and I have noticed that many of the senior citizens who live on our street do not get out much to do yard work. Dave lamented the fact that local teenagers are missing out on a great opportunity to make money doing that work—he remembers looking forward to snowy days partly because it meant earning money shoveling walks and driveways.

When the Schweitzer Fellowship opportunity was advertised at Vermont Law School [where I’m a student], it dawned on me that it might be a real boon to our community to create a service that connects able and willing young people with homeowners who have limited mobility to do outdoor work. We decided to start by offering garden services this past summer. Rutland Volunteer Garden Service (RVGS) was born.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I think that several factors have led to a situation where there is virtually no voluntary communication between teens and adults outside of institutional environments. In my mind, these factors include decades of “stranger danger” training of youngsters. I think this movement, while important, has had the unintended consequence of limiting communication between children and adults—the kids because they are trained to be wary of people they don’t know, and the adults because they don’t want to be mistaken for a creepy adult.

I also think social media options for communication have created a situation where young people may be more shy than they used to be able to get away with. Young people I have met seem to prefer passive forms of communication—they do not seem willing to look you in the eye and talk about what they are thinking. Even if this observation is not broadly true of teenagers, I know that other adults share my concern, and may assume that teenagers do not want to talk to them. This assumption could also negatively impact communication.

For whatever reason, I think most people agree that teenagers and adults do not work together much anymore unless they have to. I want RVGS to be a place where adults can go to find reliable, hardworking young people willing to do yard work for them. I want it to be a place where young people can go to prove themselves worthy of trust and respect through their hard work and commitment. More than that, I hope that it will be a new way for people to begin conversations they would not have had otherwise. If this happens, I think our community will become stronger and more responsive to people’s needs.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

The need for reliable, respectful, competent elder care is on the rise as a large sector of the American population ages. Aging in place, rather than moving into a nursing home, is one way for people to save money as they live longer lives on limited incomes. However, the stress of accomplishing regular chores and, alternatively, the cost of paying people to do regular upkeep and maintenance can be a major factor in a person’s decision to sell their home, or worse, enter into a reverse mortgage to meet rising expenses. When people are forced to make decisions like this, they are more at risk for depression and related health problems.

Simultaneously, young people are growing up in increasingly isolated, protected conditions. They often come out of high school ill-prepared to manage their own schedules, meet basic expectations at a job or in college, solve problems on their own, or know when to ask for guidance. In an increasingly difficult job market, these are real health risks in terms of mental and emotional well being, and later, as a factor in securing gainful employment with health benefits.

I think that if we are going to meet the needs of our aging-in-place elders, we need to train the next generation in basic upkeep of homes, how to anticipate when a neighbor might need help, and to instill the value that if you see that a neighbor needs help, you should go and offer yours. These skills and values will translate well to the types of jobs in elder care many in the next generation of adults will find themselves in, and will make them more valuable members of any organization.

I also believe that if we fail to teach young people empathy and care, we risk devolving into a society where it is normal to ignore suffering, or worse, normal to be unable to perceive it in others. I do not want to live in such a world, so I will do what I can to prevent such a situation.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

Frankly, it’s been how well my project was received by both the Schweitzer Fellowship and the people I intend to serve. When I proposed the project, I did not think it would be chosen because it was so small and specialized. It was really gratifying to see that the Schweitzer organization seemed to recognize both its potential and its worth on a small scale. I felt like I had come home.

The other big surprise has been that we found seven people to serve this year, and we found 13 teens and young adults willing to donate their time. That was right around my goal range, and I was really surprised we were able to reach that goal the first year.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

It means I will always have a place to go where I can be with like minded people—people who are doing seemingly small things with a bigger, more “impossible” goal in mind. It is a place I will be able to retreat to, where I will not be regarded as a dreamer in the pejorative sense, but in the best possible one. And it will be a place where I can hold that space for others. Together, we can all gather our strength and do more than we thought we could. The excitement and gratitude I feel at this prospect is beyond my descriptive ability. I’m excited and humbled at the same time.

M. Kate Thomas is a Schweitzer Fellow in Vermont. Click here to read more about the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Thomas  it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Thomas’s efforts to bolster cross-generational collaboration and communication, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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