As we've read in the last week or so, the term American exceptionalism can take on many definitions, sparking debate, discord and anger when bandied about by presidents and political leaders.
When I hear it, however, my mind doesn't delve into a sense of international superiority.
Rather, a vision of selfless volunteers emerges.
I see retirees, who could waltz from one vacation to another, choosing instead to work only for a sense of satisfaction.
I see teens racing to help instead of racing to the mall.
I see folks giving their all to impact a life, and getting even more in return.
I see the infectious smiles of so many nonprofit angels I've had the joy and privilege to write about over the years, like the ladies and gentlemen of the Nativity Outreach Food Bank and Food Pantry in Brandon.
I see exceptionalism.
Every Thursday, the food pantry provides for deserving families who can receive weekly allotments for up to three months.
Last week, it set out to service 98 families, and before the hour was over, it had signed up 21 more families. It's single moms needing to feed hungry kids, and migrant workers hoping to sustain themselves, and elderly residents whose fixed income has placed them in a fix.
The food bank provides food for nearly 50 small food pantries and street ministries on a weekly basis and 14 others occasionally.
"Some people who are cynical ask if people are taking advantage of us," said co-manager Sue Hrabusa. "There's just not room for that. If we serve 100 families and there's only one person who's sincere, that makes everything else okay. We don't judge anybody. You just never know what brought them there. How can you judge that?
"When you see the little kids, it's heart-wrenching. When you see the elderly, it's heart-wrenching. It's a tough world out there for so many people."
It's a dazzling effort in this tough world by any measure, but it's even more amazing when you consider it started 30 years ago with Sister Constance Arsenault simply handing out bags of groceries from a hut on the grounds of the church. Pat LeJeune became the first and only paid executive director in the late 1990s and guided and grew the effort with the help of key volunteer Mary Wallace.
Both ladies died in 2009. Now Hrabusa and Carl and Tess Falkenbach serve as volunteer co-managers. There's no paid staff, no board and no boss beyond Nativity pastor Arthur Proulx. There's just a shared vision and a common purpose.
"Everybody is hanging in there because no one wanted to see it go away," Hrabusa said.
Some people might suggest I'm singling out the food bank because as a Nativity parishioner I'm biased. They would be correct. I have firsthand knowledge of their drive and determination.
Every year, I witness their work ethic at the nonprofit's annual "Taste" fundraiser. The Taste of 2013, family fun featuring 20 area restaurants, will be held Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m., and I guarantee dozens of volunteers will put in the same tireless effort that makes the food bank and food pantry so efficient.
I look at these volunteers with awe, because I know they could be dining in a fancy restaurant or relaxing on a cruise or just home kicking up their feet. Maybe they call them the twilight years because they continue to shine.
In the end, I won't go so far as to say such Herculean efforts make us the best nation on earth. After all, America doesn't have a lock on volunteerism.
But these efforts make us a better nation and a better community. And I know they make me a better person.
That's all I'm saying.