Back to School Bash
Sai Baba has given us some excellent guidance on how service should be carried out. He says it should be done with a feeling of Oneness. “The entire world is the body of God and when any part of this world feels pain or suffers, every other part should feel it in the heart and should respond to it, just as the hand responds to the thorn in the leg.”1 Baba also told us where the service really needs to be done. “Feed the hungry. Offer solace and encouragement to those in distress and despair. The educated should try to teach the illiterate and open the mind of the ignorant to wider vistas of knowledge…Doctors should be ready to render free medical service to the poor. Lawyers should be helpful to those who are in need of legal aid but cannot afford to pay for their services. Businessmen should be content to keep a reasonable income for their needs and utilize the surplus for charitable purposes.”2
For about 20 years, the community Back to School Bash (BTSB), a non-profit organization, has just been practicing that message. The BTSB collaborates with various individuals, foundations and organizations throughout Palm Beach County, Florida, to help provide underprivileged students in the county with school supplies and backpacks, and other resources such as school uniforms, school physicals, immunizations, haircuts, information about Social/Child Care Services, and empower these children to begin the school year with confidence.
These Back to School Bash events take place the first or second Saturday in August, prior to the start of the school year in several locations throughout the county. The Palm Beach County Convention Center event is the largest of all the BASH events. This event has assisted over 5000 students annually and the numbers seem to be growing year after year. To successfully manage an event of this size, at least 250-300 volunteers are needed on the day of the event alone. The West Palm Beach Sathya Sai Center has taken a lead role in partnering with BTSB the past few years.
The size and scope of the event has to be seen to be believed! The Convention Center itself is the size of a football field and is abuzz with activity. Volunteers gather well before 9:00 a.m. to get the tables set up for the supplies and other services. It is a very well organized event and at the same time, there is almost a carnival-like atmosphere, with face-painting stalls, a magic fun bus, and even an indoor planetarium! The kids have an absolute blast. Free brown bag lunches are given to registered students and their families. Food is also provided for the volunteers. The organizers have been so kind in accommodating the Sai volunteers that they set up a separate area with vegetarian food just for us. It also gives us a great opportunity to interact with, and learn more about, the various other volunteer groups.
There are two main volunteer roles: Shopping Buddy, and Supply Buddy.
Once a student completes his/her registration at the registration desk, they are then paired with the Shopping Buddy, who will escort the student to his designated school supply area, which is determined by his grade level (kindergarten to high school). The Shopping Buddy will assist the student with collecting his school supplies. The Shopping Buddy is the most needed volunteer at the event, and so most volunteers are assigned as Shopping Buddies. Once the doors open to let the kids and parents in, there is a constant flow of students waiting to go “shopping”. As a Shopping Buddy you really do not have time to think of anything else other than the task at hand, quite literally in some cases, because, for the little children, you might actually be holding the child’s hand from the time you are assigned as the child’s escort for the shopping until you reunite them with their parent/guardian! It is in fact, a very spiritual experience, because you totally have to “be in the present”. You cannot let the mind wander at all, lest you lose track of the child. You also have to be very aware of your surroundings and stay focused and remember the faces of the parents/guardians so that you hand the child back to the correct person. This can be challenging, especially when there are thousands of people in the hall; even more so when they speak a language you are not familiar with, which is quite common at this event.
Supply Buddies are located at each grade level table and are in charge of handing out and restocking supplies for their assigned table. As a Supply Buddy you have to ensure that the correct supplies are given to the child based on their grade level. Being a Supply Buddy helps us understand the importance of discipline and following rules, and to give only the designated supplies to the child and not get carried away if the child requests extra. This is because the organizers have spent a lot of time in getting enough supplies to serve as many students as they can based on school lists, and handing out an extra to one child may in fact be depriving supplies from another child. But, most of all, it teaches us how to serve with a smile, because the joy on the children’s faces when they see the supplies is just so infectious!
The BASH was presented as a service project that could involve the entire Center. Once the Center members participated and saw the magnitude of the event - how well organized it was, and how many were served - their whole attitude towards the event became very positive and they were hooked! The BASH has now successfully become a region-wide service project that attracts volunteers from various Sai Centers in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
The members of the BTSB Organization always appreciate the presence of the Sai volunteers, because of their willingness to serve in any role. Usually, some of the Sai devotees, who are health professionals, volunteer at the health services desks as well. The parents of the students, and the students themselves have also expressed their gratitude to the ever-smiling volunteers. But, the biggest benefit of serving at such events is for ourselves.
For me personally, I experienced many powerful moments of realization during this service project. Coming from India, I imagined that Americans had everything. To discover that the need for school supplies was so great was a real eye-opener for me. To see the huge number of volunteers definitely restored my faith in humanity. My participation has allowed me to see “outside of the box” by expanding understanding. Serving the first time, I might think there was no harm in giving a child an extra portion of supplies if they asked. But then I learned we cannot let our emotions alone rule the way we serve. Even the little tiny erasers (10,000 of them in fact) had been counted to know how many could be distributed to each student. To give more to one would upset the balance, and deprive another. This level of detail for this project, and its magnitude, was much greater than I had imagined. Every remaining school supply was also counted, numbered, and evenly distributed to schools in the area. Absolutely nothing was wasted.
Two things that stood out to me at this year’s event: the wonderful participation of the Sai Young Adults (YAs). There were a lot of YA’s from the region, and one, in particular, really impressed me – the way he was talking to the children, and generally helping out with the setup and cleanup. I felt a sense of hope seeing the attitude and love of these YAs. The future is in good hands. You could clearly see in them wonderful exemplars of Sai Baba’s teachings on love and selfless service.
The second thing that caught my attention was the way the organizers are constantly striving to improve. For example, they are always monitoring the flow of students and looking for ways to make it more efficient. This time, they realized that by having two lines – one for the English speaking students and another for those who speak Spanish, there was a better flow, without too much wait time for the families after they checked in.
Baba says, “Service is a path to God-realization. God is the embodiment of love, truth, and peace. Therefore to realize God, one has to develop love, adhere to truth, and experience peace within oneself. ”3 Service leads to such a transformation. It increased my understanding of Unity. In the process of being immersed in serving the children, I forgot my own problems by being and living in the present. If we can do that every day, and spend every day in service we would become less self-absorbed and more egoless. Service also develops more patience, more humility, and helps us realize and be grateful for our own blessings. When we serve, we become sensitized to other people’s concerns, needs, and pains, and it softens our hearts, which is exactly what Baba wants from His devotees – a heart as soft as butter. So we are very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to serve His dear children year after year.
- Sathya Sai Baba Center of West Palm Beach & Sathya Sai Baba Center of Fort Lauderdale, FL
1 Sathya Sai Baba cited in Heart2Heart, Window to Sai Seva, Vol 3 (7), July 2005, The Golden Principles of Service. For more, see radiosai.org
2 Sathya Sai Baba, 19 Nov 1990, “Service as Duty,”sss23-30.pdf
3 Sathya Sai Speaks, 19 Nov 1987, “Born to Serve,” sss20-26.pdf
About the Community Back to School Bash (BTSB):
For 20 years the Community Back to School Bash (BTSB), a nonprofit has been providing essential school supplies to students in a yearly event. For more information, please see :http://www.backtoschoolbashpbc.org