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Millennial Must-Reads are student-contributed posts by members of the "Millennial" generation - America's 18-29 year-olds - on current events and politics and public service. Viewpoints expressed are exclusively attributed to undergraduate authors and not endorsed by Harvard's Institute of Politics.

Authored by Amy Weiss-Meyer

During spring break, I was lucky enough to be part of the second IOP group to travel to southern New Jersey and work with Helping Hands to assist those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

We had a great week putting up drywall, wainscoting, spackling, sanding, priming, and painting the home of Carol and Gordon, a couple in Tom’s River, NJ whose home was destroyed in the storm. One of the most special aspects of our week was getting to work with Greg Nixon, founder of Helping Hands of New Jersey and master contractor.

Greg didn’t just teach us the practical building skills we needed—he also shared his own story as a public service leader in his community. In the wake of Sandy, Greg told us, he realized that his skills as a contractor were some of the most needed, and so he took a break from working on his two side businesses and devoted himself to a few weeks of ad hoc volunteering in local homes. Before long he had decided to pursue volunteering full time. Together with his wife, Karen, Greg formed the now-incorporated non-profit Helping Hands of New Jersey. It was simply, he says, the right thing to do. This story was particularly inspiring to me (and, I think, to the other six members of the IOP group as well) because it is a great illustration of how private citizens—politically oriented or not—can become true public servants just by doing.

Greg explained that before he started Helping Hands, he had little interest in politics. And having experienced firsthand the shortcomings of federal, state, and local governments in the aftermath of Sandy, he’ll be the first to tell you that politics alone cannot and will not solve all of a community’s most pressing problems. Yet through these few months he’s spent working to form and strengthen his non-profit, Greg has started to see things somewhat differently. He has reexamined his own political beliefs and come to respect the role of career public servants in moving communities forward.

I’d imagine that for most of the Harvard students and IOP regulars who went on the trip, rebuilding a house may have seemed like only a small part of what we consider to be “public service.” Perhaps we imagine ourselves running for office or writing laws, or maybe we already know which non-profits we’re going to found when we get out of college and graduate school.

Greg’s story is a powerful reminder that the path to public service doesn’t have to start with such grand ambition. A shrewd businessman can decide to change the course of his life’s work simply for the sake of doing good—and in the process, he can become an exemplary public servant, drawing on both his experience in the private sector and his personal sense of what’s right.

Amy Weiss-Meyer is a sophomore from New York, NY, concentrating in History and Literature in the America field. She's been an active member of the IOP since the first semester of her freshman year and has participated in various IOP programs including the Women's Initiative in Leadership, Members at Large, and National Campaign/H-VOTE (for which she served as Kirkland House Captain). Amy is currently chair of the IOP's Community Action Committee. When she's not at the IOP, Amy edits The Crimson's Flyby Blog.