June 18, 2009


Volunteers at work (Photo courtesy: www.ana.it)

I am not an expert on voluntary service, unless I consider what I’m doing a service, and I must admit that I am often tempted to do so. I am a blogger, and blogging is not only a voluntary form of self-expression, it may also be a voluntary form of service, a way of contributing to the common good. But that’s not what I want to talk about this time. I’ll talk about “service” in the strict sense of the word, instead, referring to a recent casual meeting with a group of volunteers.

It was a Friday night and we (my family and I) were stopping at a highway rest area, more than 150 miles far from home. We were going south for the weekend with our camper. At a certain moment the rest area was invaded by about twenty yellow and green cars, minibuses and small trucks. Each and every one of the vehicles of the convoy had an inscription on it: Protezione Civile, ANA, that is Civil Protection, National Alpini Association. The Alpini (English: the Alpines) are the elite mountain warfare soldiers of the Italian Army, while the ANA is a registered society representing the former members of the Alpini corps. Those former soldiers usually see themselves as merely “on leave” rather than veterans, which makes them possibly the most gigantic and best oiled “solidarity machine” in Italy. Where there is an earthquake or whatever calamity, they go. An army of carpenters, masons, electricians, plumbers, farmers (but also some physicians, school teachers, engineers..), a two weeks shift. Some twenty or thirty of them are able to set up a relief camp and a field hospital for quake victims in a few hours and in a completely autonomous way.

There were few doubts that the convoy was headed to L’Aquila, which only a few days earlier, on April 6, 2009, had been struck by a devastating earthquake. But what initially made me curious about the “invasion” was that some of those people had the typical accent of my father’s native village, which lies just at the foot of the Alps, at the border between Veneto and Friuli, in Northern Italy. So we went out and buttonholed some of them. Both my wife and I were willing to have a chat, but above all we wanted our thirteen year old daughter to have a chance to listen to those people, to pay attention to them.

And it was worth while. It was a long conversation, because some parts of the convoy were still absent because of heavy traffic along the highway, so all those who were present had to wait for the rest of the convoy.

Well, I can’t express how enriching that talk was for us, the incredible generosity of those rough-mannered but large-hearted men, their abnegation, their sense of duty and discipline.

When they realized that both my wife an I are school teachers, they strongly expressed their concern about the way young people are brought up nowadays, and asked us a lot of questions about our school system and both its lack of severity and its ethical weakness and spiritual mediocrity, if not its spiritual bankruptcy—almost as if they had read in advance the quote by Tagore I posted a few days ago..

One more thing. I would never have thought I would have found among them someone somehow related to my parents. As a matter of fact, one was the plumber who had been working at my parent’s house some twenty years ago (he was able to remember both the house and my parents once I had explained to him where the house is sited), another said his grandfather and mine were bosom friends. But who surprised me most during that night’s talk was a man of about 65 years who was somehow familiar to me, although I didn't know why, nor could I remember when and where we might have met before. It was my wife who recognized him as the man who had been working to carve a tombstone on my father’s grave, about three years ago. Actually, while I couldn’t remember his face, I had a vivid recollection of him, of that “country philosopher” who had words of wisdom to my mother and my then ten year old daughter. He quoted old proverbs, most of them in the local dialect—a gold mine of folk wisdom, tact and sensitiveness hidden behind a rough and tough exterior.

That night he also told us the story of the years when he was an emigrant in Canada, how he won the respect of his Canadian hosts, by working hard and conforming himself to the laws, standards and customs of the nation to where he had immigrated.

I thought that it would be great to bring volunteers into schools. Long life to the Alpini!


First written for The Greatest Among You


  1. Thanks Rob for the personal testimony and insights. As usual spot on, informative and thoughtful.Thanks too for your recognition of my new blog.

  2. A second thought: The soldier/volunteers here are the best expression of service. Never ending, not asking for anything in return. Just knowing that one is contributing goodness, helpfulness, caring and compassion. A great story here too about our interconnectedness, most of the time we don’t notice, but there are poignant moments like that shared here that is a profound reminder

  3. Bella storia Rob. Che mi fa pensare ancora che nella vita c'è una ragione per tutto.

  4. What a great post and fascinating experience.

  5. Nicely told, Rob! Volunteer service to others and an individual sense of empathy for fellow citizens are hallmarks of a good society. Where you find these qualities, you find stable and successful countries. Where they're absent, the difference is obvious.