By: KIRSTEN FENN
With so many volunteer-abroad programs available on the market, questions are bound to arise over the value they hold for both volunteers and the communities involved. Are they worth the price tag? Are the benefits real? Or are they just another money grab, capitalizing on the allure of helping the less fortunate in a faraway land?
While I can’t speak for other programs that exist, I can attest to the experiences I’ve had through Carleton’s Alternative Spring Break program.
ASB was not just a week-long stint in Mexico. It was the result of several months of preparation, which ended in an eye-opening community service trip. To get to that point, we had to apply for the program (along with 200 other students) and survive the first round of cuts. A morning of individual and group interviews followed in October, after which time about 55 students were chosen for trips to Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Vancouver.
I met with my team for monthly pre-departure meetings to learn about the importance of providing service rather than delegating instruction based on what we think our placement communities need. We learned about cross-cultural communication, the importance of expanding our perspective beyond the “single story,” and we mentally prepared for experiences that might test our emotions.
While I was a little underprepared for the physical demands of building a house, the mindset I developed throughout these pre-departure sessions helped me cope with that challenge and adapt to the reality of life in La Estación.
I admit that I wasn’t surprised by the poverty we faced – Juana’s small, bug-infested house, the insufficient bathroom, her lack of clean drinking water. But when we decided to venture through the rest of the community, I was shocked.
Because Juana lives close to the main road, our group had never walked very deep into the village to reach her house. Having only seen Juana’s house and those of her few neighbours, I didn’t fully grasp the scale of the social problem. But moving beyond our site put it all into context.
Tucked between two houses at the end of Juana’s “street” was a makeshift pathway, enclosed on either side by thick sheet metal and fencing. I didn’t think of much of the walls surrounding me at first; but when I heard voices coming from behind them I realized was walking through in between a stretch of homes. They were fixed together haphazardly by rusted sheet metal and planks of wood. In most cases, the only thing providing privacy between the front door and the pathway was a dirty sheet of cloth, hanging from the doorframe.
We stepped over a dog sleeping in the middle of the path and passed a rooster making his way across the intersection between two rows of houses. At the end of the pathway was the old train station from which the community gets its name – La Estación – and where the dusty road opened up to an endless line of houses.
Through the fence on the side of the road, hundreds of concrete buildings layered each other in the distance. If you spun around in a circle, you would find mountains and high-rise city buildings poking the blue skyline. But either way you looked at La Estación, it was sitting at the bottom – at the bottom of Cuernavaca’s landscape; at the bottom of society.
Those moments made everything real to me.
I could overcome the physical aspect of building Juana’s house by working with my teammates, and I could communicate with our family in ways other than speaking. But the emotional pang of witnessing such impoverishment and social inequality isn’t something that’s “overcome” like the other situations we prepared for during pre-departures.
It’s an experience that stays with you, it opens you up to a reality that our culture is far removed from. It forces you to think, and it challenges you to re-evaluate what’s important in life. And if it disturbs you in the process – good, because social injustice should be disturbing. To me, the value of that lesson far exceeds the price tag of my service learning trip.