Planning for spring break is a big deal — beach or ski trip? All-inclusive resort or local hostel accommodations? Hurricane relief work or volunteering at a local shelter? Bet you didn’t see that last one coming.
For the 2-1/2 years that I have been in college, it has always been a goal of mine to participate in a service project. At Fordham University, where I’m a student, one group that offers such trips is Global Outreach (GO!), a cultural immersion and service program that facilitates students learning about issues of injustice around the country and the world. Teams of students are sent out every winter, spring and summer break to work with various organizations while building strong community bonds and growing spiritually. This weekend, I will be departing on a domestic project to San Diego, California, during my spring break.
The project I’ll work with in San Diego does outreach to homeless and at-risk youth. San Diego has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, with an average of 2,500 homeless youth at any given time living on the streets.While there, my team will work with Stand Up for Kids, a non-profit organization helping homeless and at-risk youth by providing them with meals, safe spaces to play and rest, educational assistance, and counseling services.
Why did I choose to do a service project during my spring break? As a young woman admittedly feeling a little spiritually lost, I’m looking for a chance on this trip to discover what spirituality really is, and how it can grow in my own life through serving others. (This is also one of the reasons why I wanted to be an intern at Busted Halo®!)
The idea of community also plays a large role in why I wanted to do a service trip. I love connecting with other people and have struggled to find my own sense of community here at Fordham. I’m looking forward to building relationships with my fellow service project teammates through our shared experiences. Our service trip is about working together and learning from each other. So, to slap an overlapping answer on the question, I chose to go on a service trip to learn. I’m “GOing” to learn about myself, to learn about others, to learn about homelessness, and maybe to learn a few things I did not expect.
Yes, I will be doing community service. But I did not choose to participate for the purpose of showing off how good of a person I am or checking a service project off my bucket list. In fact, those ideas never crossed my mind. I don’t have the expectation to “help” people. I have gifts and ideas to share with others, and I know the people I will encounter in San Diego will share their gifts and ideas with me. It will be a mutual learning experience.
To the naysayers
There are those who question the value of service trips like the one I’m going on. One argument against alternative spring breaks is that they do more harm than good. This is a valid concern. It is true that some service trips don’t make a real difference. Volunteers come with the vision that they will change the world and end up disturbing the culture, offending others, and coming off as superior to the people who are, in actuality, their brothers and sisters, their equals. The goal is to not have an idea in your head that you are going to help or save anyone. I am going to San Diego to live in solidarity with other young people my age and learn about their lives and experiences. That’s why we practice simple living and focus on building a community. Leading up to the trip, my team met for weekly meetings and spent time together learning and preparing for what to expect in San Diego. We will be staying on a campground, showering every other day, and eating small meals consisting of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit. All down time will be spent together — talking, reflecting, or playing games with each other and the kids at Stand Up. It’s all in an effort to grow in solidarity. Mutual support and learning from all people involved puts us on an equal playing field; the aim is to stay far away from paternalistic thoughts and actions. We can all gain something from listening and living; these experiences teach us so much. By not having expectations, I believe you gain so much more from life, as it often surprises you in wonderful ways.
Another counterpoint I’ve heard is: “Why don’t you help people in your own backyards?” Being from the Bronx, I know New York City has a large homeless population, and people have asked me why I don’t just spend my time volunteering around the city. Global Outreach’s unofficial belief is that “the trip chooses you.” A person can’t decide what project they want to go on and just do it; you need to be interviewed and hand-selected to join a team. In this way, the trip you go on is really not in your hands. This is a calling in some respects — you need to surrender yourself to the opportunity to serve, wherever that may be, whatever it may look like. My personality, gifts, and talents are best suited to be in San Diego at this time in my life.
Service trips aren’t about fixing the world one person at a time. They are about being with others, working with them, learning from them, and using those experiences to make a difference. In the end, I hope that the greatest change will occur within me, and that I will come across the opportunities for personal growth I have been searching for.