May 14, 2014 - Last week, I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at the Oxford-Addison Youth Assistance's Annual Youth Recognition Ceremony held at Oxford Middle School. I thought I'd share my speech.
I want to sincerely thank Oxford-Addison Youth Assistance for giving me the opportunity to speak tonight and address such an admirable group of young people.
I've been covering the Oxford/Addison area for 15 years now and based on what I've seen, Youth Assistance is one of the most essential groups this community has because of it's unwavering commitment to helping all kids, especially those who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
The kids they help aren't the sports stars or the straight-A students or the student council members.
You won't find their photos in some glossy newsletter.
The kids that Youth Assistance helps typically have problems.
Problems at home. Problems at school. Problems with abusive family members. Problems obeying the law and respecting authority. Problems that, in a perfect world, kids would never – and should never – have.
Instead of ignoring them, trying to hide them or shipping them off to places where they'll be someone else's problem, Youth Assistance chooses to help these kids find a better path in life.
They don't judge them. They don't belittle them. They don't make excuses for them.
They listen. They offer understanding. And they try to help these kids turn their lives around before it's too late.
For that, we should all thank Youth Assistance.
I'm particularly delighted to speak at tonight's event because we're here to recognize a stellar group of kids for their community service, their good deeds, their selflessness, their compassion for others and their leadership.
Each of tonight's honorees is here because they chose to help make their little corner of the world a better place.
They didn't do it because it was part of some trendy curriculum.
They didn't do it because they wanted their photo in the newspaper.
They didn't do it because it would look good on a college application or resume. They didn't do it because they wanted an award.
Each of them did what they did because it was simply the right thing to do and that's the most genuine and pure form of volunteerism there is.
In that respect, tonight's honorees are not only role models for their fellow students, they're role models for us adults.
They gave for the sake of giving, not because they expected something in return or wanted others to view them as saintly.
There's a lesson in that for all of us.
As someone who's dedicated a good portion of his life to community journalism, it does my heart good to see young people helping the community they live in.
In my line of work, it's all about the L-word – Local. Every story I write and every photo I take involves local people, local events, local happenings and local places.
Too often, people think that in order to make a difference in the world, they have to travel to the other side of the globe as if poverty, misery, pain and suffering only happen on foreign soil.
But the truth is the greatest impact we can make on a daily basis is right here in our own backyards. There are plenty of problems to solve and people to help in Oxford and Addison. And you don't need a plane ticket or a passport to do it. You just have to look around and open yourself to the needs that surround us.
You make the world a better place when you collect food for the Oxford-Orion FISH pantry. Incidentally, don't forget to leave a bag or box of non-perishable food items next to your mailbox on Saturday, May 10 for the National Association of Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger food drive.
You make the world a better place when you take some time to chat with that senior citizen on your block who lives alone and doesn't seem to get out much. Or better still, invite them to play cards or have dinner.
You make the world a better place when you donate blankets, food, toys and money to the K-9 Stray Rescue League. Or better still, give one of their abandoned and abused dogs a loving home.
You make the world a better place when you befriend people with mental and physical disabilities.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of covering Oxford's first-ever prom for special education students. It was perhaps one of the most personally moving experiences of my life. I'm not ashamed to admit that when I came home from that event, I cried.
Not because I was sad, but because I was so overwhelmed by the sheer joy and love emanating from these young people who spent an entire evening just being themselves and having fun without fear and without judgment.
There was no one there to make fun of them, make them feel like outsiders or make them feel self-conscious. There was only understanding and acceptance.
To the young people being honored tonight, I challenge you to go out and continue making the world a better place by giving voice to the voiceless, extending tolerance to the scorned and protecting the weak from all of this world's bullies, be they on the playground or ensconced in lofty offices.
You don't have to travel across oceans and continents to help others.
All you really have to do is walk out your front-door and open your eyes and your heart to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the forgotten and the marginalized that walk among us everyday.
See those who normally go unseen.
Listen to those who are not heard.
Reach out to those who feel no one is reaching for them.
To paraphrase Charles Dickens – Whatever you choose to do in life, always be sure to make mankind your business.
Make charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence your business. Thank you.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.