by Taylor Reed, University of Idaho student
In high school I was never overwhelmed with the desire to get involved in community service. However, I often observed my peers getting engaged in service through clubs, so with a little encouragement from my teachers (not to mention the added bonus of beefing-up my resume to prepare for my upcoming college applications) I decided to get involved.
In college making friends was more difficult than I had thought it would be so I joined a club committed to teaching Tucson’s inner-city youth about the importance of education one campout at a time. I began my journey through community service with the simple mindset of it being the “right thing to do,” but over the years I have gained a much deeper understanding.
Last year I was able to travel to Ecuador to participate in an international Alternative Service Break trip where a group of students from my university worked in a shelter for street children and assisted in creating a drainage system for an ecolodge in the cloud forest.
We were only in Ecuador for two weeks and although the physical work we did made a small dent in the needs in that country it created a significant bond between our group and the people we met. We didn’t build a hospital or a school but the mutual exchange of stories and information helped to further develop our perspectives’ on the world and humanity. Hopefully we made an impact on their global perspectives as well. In my opinion, the most important lesson I took away from this experience was a improved understanding of what drives me to get involved in service, and a desire to increase my service activities in everyday life.
This summer my view on service was changed again when I traveled to Togo, Africa for an internship working with local Togolese international development NGOs. I was expecting to be working with kids, a family planning center or local infrastructure development, yet the reality of my situation was quite different. Trying to find my place within these NGOs was extremely difficult: I was living in a place enveloped in poverty yet I couldn’t find where I could make a difference. I kept insisting on finding some type of job where I could work and see the tangible outcomes of my labor. I felt that if I couldn’t see results I was wasting my time. Finally my boss told me, “Taylor, you are not wasting your time, you are learning reality.” From that point on I realized my internship was not about what I could give or do for Togolese people but what I could learn from them and their way of life.
I visited village after village, some didn’t have school buildings, some didn’t have water, but they all needed something and expected me to give it to them. When I first arrived that’s what I would have wanted, to come in and build schools, hospitals, and fix every problem I could, but I realized someone had already done that. Some NGO or foreign country had already come in at one point or another and built a school or drilled a well, and now before me were crumbling schools and wells that didn’t work. This made me ask myself, what really makes lasting and sustainable service?
It clearly was not having a foreign group of people come in for two weeks and build a school and then hit the road. That had only seemed to reinforce the idea that someone would eventually come in and fix the village’s problems and until that point in time came, there was not much the inhabitants could do to improve things. I decided that if I wanted to make a lasting change I wasn’t going to be building or buying anything. After my experience in Togo I don’t think lasting change comes from money, I believe it comes from a change of social mindset and self-driven desire for improvement.
I realized that if I were to give the chief of a village $100, he might keep $30 for himself, $10 for his assistant, $5 for the principal, $5 for the doctor and then split the remaining money up among the villagers. Regardless every person he gave money to was getting a smaller cut than I had originally given, and eventually that money would run out and people would be hungry and poor again. If I would have taught the chief something or given him an idea he would be able to give 100% of what I gave him to every person in the village, and as long as that knowledge was being passed on it would never die or “run out.”
The inevitable question that comes next is: how can we create a change in a social mentality while also respecting people, their values, traditions and cultures? This is where I realize why we are so addicted to our international service trips, because they are easy. It is much more simple to come in and build something then to come in and tell people to change the way they think. While the service accomplished in a mere two or three-week stay may not have a true “lasting impact” on a community in need, I have seen firsthand that the experiences students have on these trips is completely life changing. It teaches the importance of service, the mentality needed to be successful in this field and innumerable other lessons only gained after encountering poverty and need in person.
Throughout my experience in Africa I have been forced to think about service multi-dimensionally. I am now questioning the social effects of my service, what type of ideals it enforces for people receiving the service, how I can make a lasting change, the benefits of cultural diplomacy, and looking at what is best for people in need regardless of their wants. My ideas have changed over the years; I began to serve because it was the right thing to do, I continued in order to make friends. Today, I serve because the lessons I have learned cannot be taught in a book or in a classroom and the people I have met have touched my soul and impacted me unlike anything else in the world ever has or ever could. What I have taken away from my experiences with service is utterly invaluable.
(Stories of Service is a new feature from the ASUI Center for Volunteerism and Social Action that highlights personal stories and reflections from University of Idaho students engaging in service in their local, national and global communities. If you are a student and are interested in sharing your story, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org)