Many people who I’ve talked to, when discussing “making a difference,” focus on soup kitchens, giving money to charity, and the like. These ARE laudable things. In fact, giving to charity is required by many a religion. Help others, take one step toward saving your soul. Win/win. Works out nicely, as long as your donations actually go to good things (vet your charities!). Doing service projects are part of communities, and people do these all around the world. But, there are some who may not have time or funds for large-scale adventures, who wonder, “What about me? What can I do?”

Once you’ve paid your tithing or made your donations, is the only thing left to do volunteering at a soup kitchen? Nope. That is only one way to make a difference. There are boy scouts, reading stories to terminal kids, voting for representatives in DC that will stand for a free market system so there are fewer poor…any number of things.

The big questions we have left to answer is: does it have to be “big” all the time? Do you get off the hook the rest of the time if you volunteer once a year? Nope, and the best part is, the small things add up and, in the end, make life better for you, too! Lemme explain with two examples.

First, when I had very small children, going to the bathroom in public places was a chore. [Side note, why do little kids always want to touch EVERYTHING in bathrooms? The dirtier the better, it seemed, for them.] As any parent knows, I already had my hands full that day. I went into the bathroom and found the stalls a mess. We took turns and did the best we could to avoid the grime. The handicapped stall was the worst. I guess someone had a really hard time getting their bum clean and sliding off the seat. You get the idea. Anyway, I hadn’t thought anything of the situation and was just about ready to leave when a wheelchair-bound person entered the bathroom. It hit me like a ton of bricks at that moment. I could easily use the other stall. The other person could not. I asked her if she could hold it for just a moment while I quickly did something about it. She affirmed she could, so I grabbed a paper towel and wet it, added soap and quickly scrubbed the seat, following up with wet and then dry paper towels. The seat was clean in no time flat, the kids helped wetting the towels, you know and the floor (at least they weren’t licking walls or something), and she was able to do her business on a toilet that was not covered in filth. Was that so hard? No. Did it make a difference in my life? Not measurably on my end. Did I make a difference to her? She certainly had many thanks and praises for my little family at the time, so I’d say, “Yes.”

Isn’t that what it’s all about? Making a difference to individuals? Making a difference can be simple, easy, spontaneous, and sometimes, quite unexpectedly.

My second example happened a loooong time ago, when I was in college [my first go ’round] at the University of New Mexico. The night before my story starts, my sister and I had been hanging out at home, just talking and whatever. Now, what you have to know about my sister is that she. is. hilarious. No, seriously, like I think I may have pulled a muscle laughing. Anyway, the next day, I go to class. I’m walking along and I think of something she said. I start laughing so hard that I have to stop walking, lean on the wall, and am just cracking up. I get a few weird glances, but people just avert their eyes and keep walking past the strange girl. Once I recovered from my laughing fit, I had a huge smile on my face. I was almost laughing, but held it together as I walked to class. As I walked, I said, “Good morning!” to everyone and smiled huge smiles at each person I saw. There was one man, walking with a cane, who actually stopped me after my salutation and said, “Thank you so much for your smile. It just made my day brighten…and I needed that.” He left me with a hug and a big smile. Did that make a difference? I’d say that was another scored point…and it wasn’t even on purpose!

I decided that day, that smiling at people was something I should do on a regular basis. It has served me well. Not only am I happier, but I’ve seen some grumpy pants people turn that frown upside down when I “model” a smile for them. As we now know, our behavior influences how we think. If we smile, we can’t help but feel better. Even if we hold a pen in our mouths cross-ways to force our face into a smile-like shape, it noticeably changes our mood for the better. But, I digress…

Did my smiling cost me anything, take up my time, or in any way feel like a sacrifice? No way. And, that’s how acts of service begin to feel, the more you do them. You get back much more than you give. It’s almost selfish, really…the good feelings you get from helping others. I think there was a “Friends” episode like that, come to think of it.

Anyway, while you’re thinking of things you can do for others, maybe start by smiling at a stranger and wishing them well. You never know who needs their day brightened by your beautiful face’s beams of happiness.