The following is just a snippet of what I'll be sharing this morning at the Corporate Neighbor Awards, hosted by Volunteer Mid-South.
In college, I always took odd jobs. I set up microphones in chapel services. I once ran the scoreboard for a football game. I went to Korea for 10 days one summer. I worked in a church nursery, tutored kids after school, and did yardwork.
And once, I was a pirate.
It was for a friend of a friend. (Isn't that how a lot of good stories start?) The family she babysat for had a young boy turning four. His preschool had just finished reading a book about "Pirate Sam." He wanted nothing more than for Pirate Sam to show up at his birthday party and entertain his friends.
I'm not sure why exactly I was picked for this job. Yes, my name is Sam, but the similarities end there. I was a history major. There was an entire department of theater kids who could have been chosen for the role. But, when offered the part, I accepted (they were paying $250 for just a few hours of work).
I rented a costume and showed up at the party on the appointed afternoon. The birthday boy answered the door and a look of amazement and astonishment filled his face. There, in the flesh, was Pirate Sam. The book his teacher had been reading suddenly came to life.
The party went off without a hitch. I - in my eyepatch, doorag, and pirate garb - led the kids on a treasure hunt where we finally found the chest-shaped piñata full of candy. I collected my check and went on my way.
I'll never forget that one afternoon in the suburbs of Birmingham when I was transformed into someone else and thereby helped make a backyard the swashbuckling center of a kid's fantasy.
Good experiences do that to us. They take us beyond our wildest dreams and don't only provide us with a different experience - they make us different people.
Dr. King got it right when he said, "Anyone can be great because anyone can serve." He knew there was an inseparable link between our being and our doing, that if we were willing to trying something different - like serving others - in the end, we would become a different, more generous, kind of person.
This sentiment is also at the heart of Gandhi's quote about us needing to be the change we wish to see in the world. His admonition reminds us that doing things for doing's sake won't fundamentally alter the way our world works. We need to become different people.
This is what has been at the heart of my work for the last three years with Cool People Care. The idea of "5 Minutes of Caring" is only intended as a teaser. We have never thought that we could actually fix the world's problems by devoting commercial-break sized chunks of time whenever it's convenient.
Rather, the notion of starting small, cultivating habits, and changing our values is what guides our work. You try something that's easy and doable and before you know it, your outlook has changed and you're ready to make bigger sacrifices.
My generation - Generation Y - gets this. We were the first generation who graduated high school or college with service requirements placed upon our degrees. Our colleges were the first to hire full time staff people to develop volunteer opportunities for students. Clubs and Greek life demanded service as a prerequisite for membership. If anyone knows how to volunteer, it's us.
Combine that fact with our online savvy and use, and things get really interesting. One out of six students will take a class or test online this semester. One in eight couples who will marry this year met online. Ninety-six percent of us belong to a social network.
Volunteering and technology - these aren't things we do. They've become who we are. Perhaps even more so than where we work or what we do for a living, we're deeply concerned (most of us, anyway), about the kind of people we're trying to be.
There's an opportunity here for companies. Organizations represented by the nearly 200 people in this room have been hard at work helping the community. You meet needs both in the marketplace and in the hallways of nonprofits by providing goods and services for us to buy and personnel for us to use.
Very soon, I'll help hand out awards for dedicated individuals, innovative projects, and committed companies - all of which have made Memphis better this year. It's easy to see the link between getting your employees involved in the community and how that makes the city better.
But today, I quickly want to show you the link to how it makes your company better.
It's easy to see the PR link. Those of you who were nominated - and those who will win - are able to mention that in press releases and when prospecting a new client. For some of your customers, that's important. But Gen Y is also adding a new element. In our quest to be better people, we're not just looking for places to work. We're looking for organizations that will help us be better people.
When we leave our high schools and colleges, having volunteered for hours on end, we're immediately thrown into a sea of social change ambiguity. No one is immediately present to plan and promote chances to get involved. Like soldiers lost on a battlefield, we'll wander around looking for leadership.
And that's where your company can find us. Tell the world about how you'll help me help my community. Use your efforts that are recognized here today to recruit and retain top talent for your workforce. Build a better company for your shareholders by filling it with better people who are committed to making the world a better place.
The proliferation of social media ultimately blurs lines and redefines words - any mass advancement in any industry does. Words like "community" and "friends" are being redefined by a generation of texters, Facebookers, and bloggers. With it, words like "work" and "life" are, too.
Don't be afraid of that. Just like you aren't afraid to devote company time and resources to an important local cause, don't be afraid to do more next year. You've accomplished a lot in a year marred by financial meltdowns, budgetary cutbacks, and tough decisions. Not is not the time to do less. It's not even the time to do the same amount.
It's time to do more.
A better company demands it. A better community demands it. Because better people are demanding it. At the end of the day, our organizations aren't buildings, budgets, or board meetings. They are people - people who want something more of themselves, their employers, and their city.
And trust me - they're willing to work for it.