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Heroes-In-Training: Michael Patterson

One community service project seemed to lead to another for Michael Patterson. As Michael reminds us, "Kids don't have to wait to become adults to be heroes."

Every Thursday night, from when I was seven to about nine years old, you knew where to find me: glued to the TV watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Watching great heroes of history live their entire lives traveling from village to town to city helping people simply because they could (and they felt it was their destiny), made one of the biggest impacts on me as a child…and the super-human strength was awesome, too. Ever since then, I knew what I wanted to do; I had to serve people and communities in the best way that I could.

One advantage of growing up as an unschooler was having the freedom to actually go out and begin following this dream immediately. My parents were very supportive and introduced me to a huge list of charities and organizations that were dedicated to many causes. We started out donating our old things, collecting canned goods for food pantries, and making blankets for The Linus Project. This was where I got my feet wet in the world of community service. I started volunteering my time and labor with Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, and 4H. I even helped with my sisters in their Girl Scout projects.

As I got older, I started wanting bigger projects and more of a leadership role in them. So, I became coordinator for a homeschool group participating in Teens Make a Difference Day, working on a large scale landscaping project for Habitat for Humanity. I lead my Eagle Scout project to collect eyeglasses for people who couldn’t afford their prescriptions. The list kept growing and growing. The world, as it is, has innumerable problems. Poverty, education, climate change and countless other issues are talked about every day. However, in my humble opinion, that’s the real issue. People will sit and talk for hours upon hours about the latest crisis, and usually ​the conversation turns to criticizing one person or group for their failure or inaction, or worse, concluding that we’re all doomed.

This is not going to make any change happen. Only action can do this.

We as homeschoolers and unschoolers have a great advantage in helping children not fall into this pattern of complaining and apathy. We have total control over what we do with each moment of our lives. There is always a chance to jump in and be the change that you want to see. Volunteering for projects makes you part of the solution instead of part of the obstacle. There are projects and organizations everywhere dedicated to all kinds of causes. Start small with things like collecting coats for homeless people or volunteering for an hour or two at the soup kitchen. Before you know it, you’ll have caught the volunteering bug.

Kids, I find, are even more likely to want to get involved once they see how easy it is. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say to their friends, “Yeah, this weekend, I helped build houses for people that don’t have a place to live?" A lot of apathy is out there and at some point we all face it, wondering if our little efforts mean anything. In the Peace Corps, I definitely had long periods of thinking that nothing I did actually improved English education in my little town. But my boss, Greg MacDonald, seemed gifted at being able to work with volunteers. He could look at the efforts of anyone, no matter how burned-out they felt, and could motivate them to pick themselves back up. He would tell me that it’s the little things that move the mountains in this world.

When we all do something that maybe made someone’s life just a little more positive, we have created a movement that slowly moves the world towards a better future. It’s a type of social evolution, where one little change after another brings us to a whole different level. Volunteers are the ones out there making those little changes.

Parents can be this reassuring motivator to their children. Kids don’t have to wait until they become adults to be heroes. They can start right now, alongside their siblings, friends and parents. Did I become like the heroes I watched on TV as a kid? Giving other kids opportunities they might have never had, feeding someone who maybe hadn’t eaten in days, helping people have just a little more light in their lives… essentially, yes.

Michael Patterson, grown homeschooler, lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Kathya Aleman. He works for Boy Scouts of America and occasionally speaks at unschooling conferences around Texas about his experiences getting into college as well as life in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps.

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