Many times when we look to do community service, we come in thinking we are doing some great and heroic service to a community in need. But what happens when the community does a service to our learning and our growth in a way that catches us off guard and follows us everywhere we go in each and every interaction we have?
When I was in high school, I received an amazing opportunity to go Nan Colo, Haiti with my church and family to help rebuild a community bathroom – bearing four walls, a roof, and a hole in the ground – that was used by approximately two hundred people. We also collected and donated shoes and clothes for kids, most of whom had worn down their shoes with years of scrapping them and beating them over rough rocks as they traveled back and forth to school and played soccer in the uneven grounds of the mountainsides. With very little education on the history behind this strong and beautiful country, I knew it was one of the most impoverished places I could go. I also knew I was committed to being there, feet planted on the soil and anxious to gain a month of experiential knowledge of what it is like to be in a third world country.
Walking through the streets of Port Au Prince, I was surprised to actually see concrete buildings holding up like worn out sponges with so many porous fifty caliber holes soaked through it. I became more and more proud of the people of Haiti for their continued strength and resistance despite everything they had gone through. After making the longest journey through white rock riverbeds, the searing heat of the reflecting sun felt like razors cutting back into my skin (For those of you who know me, understand that this was some serious heat on my back). In arriving to the village in the mountains, I could already imagine the national geographic or discovery channel episode – sweeping mountains of emerald green overlooking the small capital I had just come from. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life and yet this beauty was not separate from the people or the degradation that both, the land and the people, had been through.
What most changed me were my efforts to change the people. To attempt to at least momentarily take away the pain by gifting them with our recycled clothes and valuables. Initially, I patted myself on the back and crudely expected this moment to be a life changing moment for them. While I do not doubt that they appreciated the so-called “community service” that we offered, their faces did not brighten up the same way as after I had spent weeks with them trying to understand and learn their language, their politics and the shibboleths of their culture. I sat down with kids that were just around my age. When I listened, I heard them talking about similar struggles – boyfriends and girlfriends, parents in their ear, school. This is not to say they were all the same as me, but that we could connect with each other by taking out the time to listen and understand each other. We could connect despite living in different countries, with different cultures and even religions. It became such a moving experience because they came out of people’s voices, into the reality of my fingers and more so, my conversations.
The service that the Nan Colo and Haitian community offered me, was to learn to understand people. Connecting with people on a deeper relational level is important whether we are listening to the people of Nancolo, Haiti or students on campus. Reflecting on this life changing experience and the conversations I had in Haiti makes me think about how I am on campus now. My perspective in how I show up in various spaces or when I meet new students, start a new class or join a new committee has been changed. While there are many differences among us I now know I must first take initiative by working to listen to what is going on around me.
What are the conversations that are being had or need to take place? Hopefully you too will engage in what matters to you and share your experiences.
Anderson DuBoise – SEAC Event Specialist