To anyone who went to high school in California, here’s something that will absolutely not shock you: I, an Asian woman living in the Golden State, was heavily involved in Key Club as a high school student. Here’s something that might: I grew to hate it.
Key Club International, a community service organization with chapters all over the world, is pretty hard to knock. Its slogan is about as unproblematic as they come: “Caring, our way of life.”
The problems arise when community service stops being altruistic, and the way of life becomes centered around a numbers game that thrives from its most loyal players giving their all — for better or worse.
I joined my high school’s Key Club in freshman year, and in junior year, I ran for president and won. I knew that I had a big undertaking in front of me, but I didn’t know to what extent people were willing to disparage me for the sake of protecting the club’s reputation.
I was in charge of one of the largest and highest-achieving clubs in the division (city) level. My club also had students who led on the district (multistate) level, including the district governor, service projects coordinator and lieutenant governor.
All eyes were on me to make sure that my club recruited the most members, tallied the most volunteer hours and raised the most money. Our focus was on making ourselves look good on the division and district level. If we didn’t meet these sky-high expectations, the clout we raised through past years and from our current district representatives would be all for naught — as if our Key Club couldn’t just do community service for the sake of helping the community.
The truth is that I was terrified out of my mind. I was terrified at being responsible for something far larger than myself. I was terrified that I wouldn’t live up to the impossible expectations that my superiors had set for me. Most of all, I was terrified at how much my life started to unhealthily revolve around an organization that was, after all, supposed to just be about charity work.
Almost as if to validate my personal demons, there were loyal Key Club members who relentlessly gossiped behind my back. One of them, who was particularly revered by our peers for their bluntness, repeatedly declared to others that I was a “terrible president.” Others were quick to talk about my supposed lack of assertiveness or whatever else they could point fingers at.
All of them talked among themselves, predicting that the club would fall apart in my hands. But throughout my descent into what was essentially mental illness, none of them saw me as a real person who needed assistance. Instead, my cries for help were weaponized to make me into a scapegoat.
The pressures of Key Club were felt by more people than myself. Stories of leaders — from the club to the district level — chugging energy drinks, drafting resignation letters never to be seen by the public, breaking down in private and quitting in the midst of their term are not uncommon. A joke I heard once is that you’re not a real Key Club president if you’ve never cried over the stress before.
In the end, I was admittedly just an OK president. I didn’t make any significant positive changes, but I didn’t burn the club to the ground either. With that being said, I always felt guilty about not donating enough money like the perfect member, not selling enough event tickets like the perfect member and not completing more than 100 hours of community service like the perfect member.
I was expected to be a cog in the machine and give my all to the organization. We needed to win recognition awards on the division and district level so that we would “officially” be one of the best. Otherwise, what was the point of volunteering or raising money?
There’s something almost poetic about a community service organization that’s known to raise money to address pediatric trauma having an extremely toxic environment within its leadership system run primarily by teenagers.
In hindsight, my failures as a president partially stemmed from longer-standing personal issues — particularly with anxiety, chronic burnout and other things I’m still trying to figure out. But I, along with countless other folks, continue to be the victim of a never-ending numbers game — a society that rewards only the best, brightest and most accomplished.
Participating in this rat race of awards, titles and resumes comes at the cost of your mental health. Not participating comes at the cost of your reputation and, at worst, your trajectory in life.
As much as I would love to blame all of Key Club’s deficiencies on internal issues, the Key Club rat race was an accurate reflection of society’s willingness to exploit individuals for the supposed collective benefit.
This isn’t to say that Key Club is completely awful, nor is it me saying that every member will have the same experience as me. Being a leader helped me get out of my shell and gain confidence speaking to crowds. I learned how to communicate professionally with adults and construct business emails. I learned to genuinely enjoy and appreciate volunteering in my community, despite the toxic culture within the organization itself.
But I’m not the first person who’s sensed the toxicity that Key Club inadvertently breeds, and I shouldn’t be the last person to point out the hypocrisy in a nonprofit organization that exploits its members in a way that eerily resembles the pitfalls of unfettered capitalism.
Altruism only exists when people can afford to be selfless. High school students are constantly told that every action of theirs will impact the rest of their lives, so they understandably act as if there is everything to lose. If and when society’s rat race ceases to exist, that is the day when community service will stop serving as a medium for competition.