Habitat for Humanity volunteers set up ladders for a roof replacement project. (Sarah T. Lane/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The old folks call it being “convicted.” That’s what happened to me this week. Oh, I wasn’t found guilty of anything. I face no legal proceeding; no prison sentence is in the offing, nothing like that. But I was hit with a strong sense of guilt and humility after hearing the answer of my 17-year-old grandson, Henry, to my casual, almost throwaway, question: “What have you been doing this summer?”

I was driving him from Union Station to our home, where he had come to spend a few days before heading back to New York and his senior year of high school. Two children of our oldest son and my wife, Gwen, were in the back seat; they, too, heard Henry’s offhand response: He had spent several days in a rural community working with other youth providing emergency home repairs for poor families.

We were surprised to learn that Henry had been quietly doing this for three years.

The conversation in that 15-minute drive took us to places our minds had not visited before, and with someone we have known since birth but are only beginning to appreciate as a young adult with a mind and values of his own. But isn’t that the way it is for most grandparents?

Listening to Henry, my journalistic bone kicked in, and I asked him to capture his experiences in a few written words.

His report convinced — convicted — me of my errors.

I often use this space to rant about what governments do or fail to do, especially when it comes to helping families in need. I fulminate on behalf of the lost and left out through the medium of a computer terminal.

Then there is this from Henry — a first-hand account of experiences most likely replicated by almost 17,000 adult and youth volunteers from around the country who serve with a program called the Appalachia Service Project.

Speak Henry:

“Three years ago I was imagining up all these great plans about my summer. Where I would go, whom I would see, and what I would do. I would have never thought that the best thing that I would do throughout the entire summer was dig eight 2-foot holes through coal, cement posts into the ground, and build a wheelchair ramp in five days for a woman who was homebound after having her leg amputated. And might I mention that the second day there was a 10-hour torrential downpour, so the entire workweek it was muddy. But that was the greatest thing I did the entire summer.”

That was in Year 1.

“For the next two years I would do other jobs, such as put a tin roof on a house for an elderly couple whose roof was falling in, or completely re-wall the inside of a house that belonged to a man who had had over 30 surgeries in the past year.”

Henry told us that each year of volunteer work has created some of the best memories of his life so far, just knowing that he had helped someone who really needed help.

“I’ve heard stories from some of the people I’ve helped that have changed who I am as a person,” he said. “There are people who I’ve talked to for less than an hour who have shared more of their life and their love with me than people I’ve known and called my friends for years.”

He said that service experience, the work he did, the new friendships he built, have “given me some of the greatest lessons in my life, have introduced me to the greatest people in my life, and have made me more of myself than I could ever hope to be.”

So yes, I am convicted. So very wrong of me to not see the compassion and commitment that exist in people who operate below the radar, far away from the stage, microphones and cameras, to help those among us who desperately need help.

So very convicted for not recognizing people, young and old, who are trying in their own ways to make a difference, and not asking for a dime in return — only the chance to serve. So guilty for not saying that in addition to the need for public policies ensuring the health, welfare and safety of citizens, it also falls to each of us to offer whatever talent, treasure or time that we have to help others in need.

But it’s not too late to say I’m sorry. And to add, at least on my own behalf, a heartfelt thank you to the Henrys of this world.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.