If Memory Serves: How Giving Back Shaped My Life

I still remember the house. It was an old gray Victorian in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, with lots of windows and a hand-painted "Women Incorporated" sign nailed above the front door. My first visit must have been in 1976, when I was still a new college graduate and looking for opportunities to put my love of writing to good use.

I went with a friend, who introduced me to Katie Portis, the organization's founder. Katie launched Women's, Inc. after overcoming her own struggles with addiction. Under her leadership, it had grown to provide housing, treatment, counseling and job training to young single mothers struggling to overcome addiction and keep their children.

She invited me to organize a writing workshop for the women living in the house. I accepted the assignment with more than a little trepidation. I had been writing for a good part of my life, but did that make me qualified to teach it, especially to people who had been through so much? What did I have to share with them? Would I be able to make even a small difference in their lives?

It didn't take long for my questions to be answered. After a lifetime of having their voices muffled by poverty, abuse and addiction, the women burned hot with emotion. They wrote furious poems and told stories that made my heart jump; their words were raw and powerful.

I told them how their stories made me feel, offered feedback and encouragement, but mostly I just listened -- at first because I didn't know what else to do, and later because I realized that what they needed most was an audience, not another critic.

About a year after that first visit, I left Boston for New York City. But the stories I heard at Women, Inc. and the young women who told them were seared into me, and so was my growing confidence that I was capable of making a difference. One of the first pieces I published was a column in Essence magazine about Katie and her work at Women, Inc. And today, as New York City's First Lady, much of my work is focused on helping women and people who are struggling with addiction.

My contribution to Women, Inc. was small, especially compared to a giant like Katie. I'm writing about it now because I think it illustrates a larger truth that millions of Americans have experienced: Every act of service is worthwhile. And it's not just the recipient who benefits, but also the volunteer. I learned as much from those women as they learned from me, probably more.

I'm sure this axiom will prove true for the tens of thousands of Americans who are participating in service projects today to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They deserve not just our gratitude but also our continuing encouragement. If Dr. King proved anything, it's that service isn't a series of discrete acts -- it's a way of life.

So if you're volunteering today, thank you -- I hope you'll keep it up. If not, there's no day like today to take the first step. If you live in New York City, the NYC Service website is a great place to start. If you live somewhere else, just Google "volunteer" and the name of your community -- it won't take long to find a worthy organization that could use your help. I guarantee that every act of kindness will be repaid many times over, for decades to come.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and NYC Service, the latter of which is an organization within Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office that drives volunteerism to impact New York City's greatest needs. Chirlane McCray is First Lady of the City of New York and Chair of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City. To learn more about NYC Service's Resolve to Volunteer in 2015 Campaign and volunteer opportunities in New York City, click here.