The error of my ways

Old folk call it being "convicted". That's what happened to me last week. Oh, I wasn't found guilty of anything. I face no legal proceeding; no prison sentence is in the offing. But I was hit with a strong sense of guilt and humility after hearing my 17-year-old grandson Henry's answer to my casual, almost throwaway, question: "What have you been doing this summer?"

He had come to visit for a few days before heading back to New York and his senior year of high school, so I was driving us home from the train station. In the back seat, my wife Gwen and two children of our oldest son heard his offhand response too.

He had spent several days in a rural community working with other youth to provide emergency home repairs for poor families. We were surprised to learn that he had been quietly doing this for three years.

That chat took us to places our minds had not visited before, and with someone we had known since birth but were only starting to appreciate as a young adult with a mind and values of his own. But isn't that the way for most grandparents?

My journalistic bone kicked in, and I asked Henry to capture his experiences in a few written words.

His report convinced - convicted - me of my errors.

I often use this space to rant about what governments do or fail to do, especially when it comes to helping families in need. I fulminate on behalf of the lost and left-out through a computer terminal.

Then there is this from Henry - a first-hand account of experiences most likely replicated by nearly 17,000 adult and youth volunteers around the country who serve with a programme called the Appalachia Service Project.

From Henry: "Three years ago, I was imagining up all these great plans about my summer. Where I would go, whom I would see and what I would do. I would have never thought that the best thing I would do was dig holes through coal, cement posts into the ground and build a wheelchair ramp in five days for a woman who was home-bound after having her leg amputated.

"And might I mention that, the second day, there was a 10-hour torrential downpour, so it was muddy the entire workweek. But that was the greatest thing I did the entire summer."

That was in Year 1. "For the next two years, I did other jobs, such as putting a tin roof on a house for an elderly couple whose roof was falling in, and completely rewalling the inside of a house that belonged to a man who had had more than 30 operations that year."

Henry told us that each year of volunteer work had created some of the best memories of his life so far, because he knew he had helped someone who really needed help.

"I've heard stories from some of the people I've helped that have changed who I am as a person," he said. "There are people I've talked to for less than an hour who have shared more of their life and their love with me than people I've known and called my friends for years."

He said that service experience, the work he did, the new friendships he built, had "given me some of the greatest lessons in my life, introduced me to the greatest people in my life, and made me more of myself than I could ever hope to be".

So yes, I am convicted. So very wrong of me to not see the compassion and commitment that exist in people who operate below the radar - far away from the stage, microphones and cameras - to help those among us who desperately need help.

So very convicted for not recognising people, young and old, who are trying in their own ways to make a difference, and not asking for a dime in return - only the chance to serve.

So guilty for not saying that, in addition to public policies that ensure the health, welfare and safety of citizens, it also falls to each of us to offer whatever talent, treasure or time that we have to help others in need.

But it's not too late to say that I'm sorry. And to add - at least on my own behalf - a heartfelt "thank you" to the Henrys of this world.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'The error of my ways'. Print Edition | Subscribe