International Service Learning Study Abroad Handbook/Service

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Have you ever done community service work, or traveled to another location to help someone in need that you did not personally know? Human beings are one of the few species that have altruistic tendencies. Why do people feel the need impact other people's lives? In this section we will discuss the differences between helping and service, ask you to think about the reasons for doing service work, how the length of time you serve is very important, and discuss respectful ways of giving and receiving gifts.

Helping, Fixing or Serving[edit | edit source]

“Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” - Rachel Naomi Remen

Handshake stylised

Often those setting out on a service learning or volunteer project think in terms of helping or fixing. This comes from a good place, a place in us that sees hardship and people less privileged than us and wants to do something about it. However, when it is framed in the terms of helping or fixing there is an implication that those you are “helping” are incapable of helping themselves or that they do not know how to “fix” their own problems. This creates, from the get go, a power difference between you and those you will be working with. This inequality will make it harder to work with people and harder to get to know them.

To be able to build the strong and meaningful relationships that everyone hopes to cultivate on this kind of experience, it is important to think of the people you will be working with as equals and to LISTEN. That is where serving comes in. Here is a test: when you get to your service learning location ask the people in the community where they see the problem areas to be. And then ask them what they think the solutions should be. Often the answers will surprise you. The people in the community have amazing ideas about how to improve their community. They have insights into solutions that, as outsiders, we will never have. This listening exercise can bring up some interesting questions about the work you and other are doing in the community.

Many organizations and NGOs that do service or volunteer projects have realized just this, that communities know best. These are the kinds of service projects where building strong relationships and trust with the community is important. The people that work and volunteer with these groups see themselves as doing service work rather than fixing the problems of a less privileged community. The projects that come from these groups are most likely to be sustained and to have an impact because the ideas and passion comes from the community, not outsiders.

While we spent time in Kochia, Kenya, one experience I had truly struck me, and hit me that I wasn't in Kenya to save it, and even if I was, I wouldn't be able to. Through our work at Ombogo Girls Academy and Abba Primary School and CBO, one day was spent doing a partnership project between the two groups. At Ombogo, we split into groups, and each of us from America was assigned a group of students from Ombogo to work with. We teamed up with Abba CBO to go out into the community of Kochia and help in the homes of the grandmothers for a day. We were asked to help clean their homes, do their laundry, and get some order back into the houses. For a long time, I was very frustrated with this day. I couldn't speak the language, and needed the girls to interpret for me, I didn't know how to wash clothes by hand, and for the most part, just stood there while the girls did it, and I didn't know what was expected from the process of cleaning a house in Kenya. As much as I was glad that the grandmothers were helped out that day, I felt like it was silly for me to have been there, because all I did was stand there. I felt like the one time we were finally going to go "do" something, I just stood there. I was worried that the girls would be annoyed with me because I wasn't helping at all, and I genuinely wanted to be able to say that I had something tangible to show for my time there. It wasn't until we returned home and that day continued to stick with me that it really started to sink in. I had a hard time ever placing my finger on why that day had stuck with me or ever knowing specifically what bothered me about it. That is when I realized that I'm not in Kenya to fix things. Everyone there is capable of running their own lives, and nobody can simply walk in and fix a problem and leave. If I was to ever be able to help people there, I would have had to have spent much more time in Kochia and learned the culture, language, and village much more. I cannot help anyone without building a relationship with them first. These girls from Ombogo on the other hand, knew everything that needed to be done. They wasted no time, and carried with themselves so much compassion for their country and community, it was incredible.

It is important to know a lot about the group or organization you will be doing your service learning with. Always question an organizations commitment to serving over fixing a community.

Since I have traveled to Kenya, and spent time studying the ethics of serving and the ethics of coming into a foreign location with the intention of fixing anything, I have become very interested in researching the ethics of various organizations. I was very interested in the recent trend of TOMS shoes, and whether their outer image of saving the world was really doing good or not. I have debated for awhile now whether or not I should buy a pair of shoes, and if they really are accomplishing anything. Before buying a pair, I took the time to really research the company and read both the company website's description of their program, and critics reviews of the company. What I found really backed up many things that I saw while on the ground in Kenya. While we all want the world to have shoes, and really love the idea of giving away shoes, or toys, or soccer balls to underprivileged children in developing nations, the question arises of why these shoes, toys, or soccer balls cannot be bought in the developing nation. TOMS shoes goes into developing nations and gives away hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes each year. However, by doing this, local economies are being harmed. Local vendors that are selling shoes are losing business, because potential buyers are instead being given shoes. Because of this, higher unemployment rates ensue, further perpetuating the poverty in the country.

At the same time, TOMS lets volunteers buy their way to developing nations to go pass out the shoes. By doing this, they are allowing people to exploit the people in these developing nations, by helping out the idea of poverty tourism. These volunteers then take all of the shoes to give away, and go personally pass them out. Throughout developing nations, there is a huge stereotype that the white man is there to save the day, and will always bring gifts. Instead of building lasting relationships, local people instead see white people only as sources of money and gifts. While in Kenya, one small girl walked up to me one day and tapped my arm. I was expecting she wanted to hold my hand and hang out with me for awhile, but instead she sternly looked at me and simply said "Where's my present?" I was caught off guard, and told her I didn't have a present for her. At that, she promptly walked away from me and I never saw her again. She was so used to simply expecting gifts from white travelers that she had no interest in actually building a relationship with me.

By taking the time to research TOMS shoes, I was able to make a responsible consumer decision, and decide if their product was really right for me. This carries over to other retailers, non-profits, or volunteer agencies. It is incredibly important to know where your money is going to, and know if you donate money if it is actually doing any good.

Interested in more on Helping, Serving or Fixing? Here is a great video:

Who is it for?[edit | edit source]

“The people we are visiting have just as much—if not more—to teach us as we have to teach them.” –Daniela Papi

Although the answer may seem obvious, the question of whom service learning is benefiting is not as clear as it may seem. The people possibly benefiting are the people being visited, the families in the community being visited, the nation as a whole, the sponsors or fundraisers of the volunteer, the organization the volunteer is going through, or possibly the volunteer herself. And as much as the volunteer might offer their service in the belief that the community needs them, perhaps there’s more to the issue; perhaps the volunteer actually needs what the community offers just as much, or even more.

Service volunteer Matthew Stokes is a great example of this. Matthew went for a short period of time to Costa Rica, where he brought a collection of donations for a small community as well as money to help them build an orphanage. However, Matthew’s idea of using the two-week time frame he was given in order to contribute to a community began to change form once he arrived and submerged himself in the culture. One thing he discovered was that the community felt his visit was about getting to know each other, and that building relationships was much more important than building a physical structure and getting the most work out of every hour.

Through this experience, Matthew began to question the overall goal of the trip, eventually realizing that “service learning occurs only when both the providers and recipients of service benefit from the activities” (Furco, 1996). Also, clearly people have different ideas about what the goal of a service trip is, and learning to listen and adjust is what might distinguish “fixing” or “helping” from true service. [everyone]

Any time a volunteer is communicating with someone—whether initially they are serving or not—the volunteer is expanding themself through the experiences they’re involved in.

Here is what one student said about her time in Kenya and the gifts she has brought back home with her.

"I have spent this time with the most incredible people and am blessed to be a part of such an amazing group back home. I have met people with such big hearts that sometimes I think they simply could explode. They have opened their hearts to me and given me so many kind words. I may not have climbed mount Kilimanjaro, but I feel like I have climbed so many other mountains. It will be nice to lay my head down back at home and know that there are the same incredible people half way around the world.

I have realized that here we have the ability to completely focus on our own needs and happiness and we don’t focus enough on the group and human kind as a whole. Kenyan’s have given me a new perspective. Not one person in this community puts themselves first. Instead of focusing on how they as one singular person in the world can remain with the highest potential of happiness, they strive to figure out how they can spread joy, and possibly share their meal with a neighbor, even if it takes them having much less. If they only watched out for their own personal needs, happiness and growth, these amazing communities would not be anywhere. Though the children receive one cup of porridge a day, they are living more fully than many children I see at home and have given me so much joy. They see beauty in so little.

I don’t want to put the safari and the relationships I have built on the same level. I don’t know much about Africa, and all I have is a small pair of eyes in which I have been able to see through. I have seen two small places in a small country in Africa, and will struggle speaking for the rest of the continent. I am a bit nervous that talking about the trip will not do justice to my experiences. But I promised all of the girl’s at Ombogo that the first thing I would do for them is greet my friends and family with love from them, for they have offered and given me so much.

I came on this trip with the impression that I was going to be different. My skin was different, my language was different, my life back home was different. I was prepared to be an outsider. This idea got blown completely out of the water. The relationships I have built in these six short weeks have been amazing and I wish to do my best and share them with you all. The first letter I got from Beryl ended with this quote, “Your companionship has made me to know that human beings all have the same races. We are all human kind. Quality of a good friend is anywhere.”

In Kenya, when a family gets a goat, they cut the meat of it’s neck, cook it, and put it outside for passer buyers in the community. People may look poor on the outside, but inside they are so incredibly rich.

It has been a huge success for me to be here and witness the growth everyone has had in such a short time. Everything in this world comes down to building relationships, love, and joy. I have promised myself to remain a true friend, to love freely, to constantly support my family and to grow stronger with each accomplishment, and even stronger with each setback. I will constantly give, and honor my own experiences and stories. I will remain grateful and realize my own privileges. I will realize the power and potential of personal growth. This trip has been completely about giving and receiving love and it radiates outward.

Short term vs. Long term[edit | edit source]

When you are on a service learning trip does it matter how long you stay? In the above sections we learned that it is okay to travel to a location to explore new culture, to learn through experience, to make relationships with people different from you. In service learning you have to acknowledge that you are traveling to improve the place you are going and to better yourself. This is the first step in understanding service learning. The next thing that a traveler must take into consideration is how long their trip is going to be. The longer you are there the easier it will be to make connections with people and start learning about the ways you can help their community that will be most beneficial for them.

In high school I went on four service learning trips through my youth group. Three of them were in country mission trips and one was out of the country. Each trip was about seven to ten days long. While I was at all of these individual places the team I was with accomplished a great amount and we learned a lot about different cultures, team work and ourselves. One crucial aspect of service learning that was missing from those trips was building lasting relationships. When thinking back, if we had gone back to the same place every year for two or three weeks, think how much more of an impact we could have made rather than spending one week at four different sites.

The longer you can stay at a given location and the more opportunities you have to return will make your service more beneficial for you and the community you serve. It allows you to build strong relationships that make you personally connected to the culture, people and place you are visiting. It also gives the people you are serving a greater chance to learn and understand the culture that you come from.

An interview with Pennye Nixon from Etta Projects, a non-profit organization based out of Montero, Bolivia helps to explain the some issues in the service world. There work work is to “facilitate and help communities find the pathways to sustainable and realistic answers to have those needs met.” Pennye describes the difference between helping and service with the example of building a well. Building a well where there is a need for clean water and then leaving is helping. Questions need to be addressed such as, how to use the well, who to go to when there needs to be repairs when you are gone, how to keep the well from contamination. When these issues are addressed and worked through, this is service. Helping is bringing the product but service is teaching how to sustainably use the product.

Another thing that Pennye talked about was the importance of long-term service. Etta Projects work on projects for a minimum of three years. One of the most important things is building relationships and creating strong sustainable projects that will last once your influence has left. It takes a very long time to build trusting relationships with community members but it is possible to do when viewing your service as long-term. She also explained that you are not going to end poverty by completing your project, but when you are done the people you are serving will have a different, healthier way of life. Sustainability is key to service. Anyone can start a project, what you want is once you leave and come back 15 years later the work did is still there and doing the job you created.

Thank you Pennye Nixon for all of your great input. Log on the to learn more about the work being done in Bolivia.

Giving and Receiving[edit | edit source]

Have you considered giving or receiving gifts while you are traveling? Are there negative consequences for exchanging gifts? If someone offers you a present should you accept? Many people when traveling abroad will bring extra clothes or supplies to the people they are serving. This seems like a logical and resourceful thing to do but when you look at the broader picture it can be hurtful to the relationships you are creating. By giving impoverished individuals who you are trying to build relationships with your old items it creates a power differentiation. It is sending the message that you are better than them; they can have your old things you do not need anymore because you can buy new items. It is also sending the message that what they have is not good enough or up to Western standards.

Tying friendship bracelet

I have just gotten back from a six week Service learning trip in Kochia, Kenya with about 11 other university students. We talked a lot about giving and receiving before we left but I did not fully understand how much issues around giving and receiving came up while I was in Kenya. The whole time we were there we were considered the “visitors” that got special treatment. Every place we went we were invited in to have tea or ugi, which is porridge made out of millet, everywhere we went. I remember our first visit to the ABBA International School of Excellence, a primary school, orphanage, and health clinic. After we got a tour of the facility they sat us down in the kitchen area and served us this huge class of ugi without asking if we would like any. We were sitting with about 40 orphans as well eating the porridge. Some of the children sitting all around me were malnutrition, I felt so guilty I did not want to accept the ugi, I wanted to give my cup to one of the kids. I felt so uncomfortable taking food that these children could be eating when I knew I had a full dinner later that night. This type of thing happened a lot while we were in Kenya always being pampered and treated with the best care. Over time I learned that in those situations it would be disrespectful to reject the tea or food someone is offering you. It was still uncomfortable sometimes but if us sitting down having ugi with the people we met in Kenya than that’s what we will do.

There are many aspects of giving and receiving. Another one is bringing gifts. When we traveled to Kenya we did not bring soccer balls, toothbrushes, and clothes for the people. That was not what the trip was about. It was about building relationships learning and experiencing and different culture. At first this was really hard to remember for me when we first arrived. I saw how little everyone had and struggles with how much I had. I was frustrated that we didn’t bring anything. Overtime I realized that if we had showed up and dumped a bunch of stuff onto these people it would have completely ruined the relationship. It would have looked like that was our only reason for being there. Whenever white people come to Africa they bring stuff, we broke this stereotype because we were not there to tell them there life will be better with the materials we bring. The lives of the people there may not be full of things and stuff, but they are full of love, happiness, joy and faith. The relationships and the things we learned about one another will last a lifetime, much after a soccer ball will be popped.

The last thing I learned about giving and receiving is it is okay to say no when someone asks you for something. I got asked for my watch, water bottle and ring I was wearing multiple times. A boy came up to me at ABBA and grabbed my watch and said “Give me this.” I said “I can’t I need it for the rest of the trip.” He replied, “But you can buy another one.” That sentence shocked me, he was completely right I could buy another one but I still needed my watch and I didn’t have a watch for all 350 students at the school so I did not give it. When things come up like this it is difficult but I learned it is okay to say no when you need to.

Gift giving is in many aspects of the American culture. Gifts are given to say thank you, to celebrate a special occasion and numerous other times. This is not true for all other places and cultures around the world. When you are traveling gift giving is not always expected. If you do feel the need to give gifts, keep them for people that have made a special impact on you while you were traveling. It is best when giving and receiving gifts to give something that you made, as it is more personal than something you purchased. Examples would be bracelets, pictures, or something from the heart. This will instill equality and a true friendship rather than giving charity.

We also spend a lot of time at the Ombogo Girls Academy, a secondary boarding school for girls. On our last day we printed out pictures of some of the students we became friends with and wrote a note on the back. Many girls also wrote us goodbye letters. These letters meant so much to me and I will have them forever.

“Give gifts that help, not hurt; think about the impact of what and how you give. Give more than we take by learning from and teaching the people we encounter”- Jill Hecherthorn

Leading into the trip, I was cautious not to give things away, seeing that I didn't want to favor anybody, or contribute to dependency. And, although I was asked many times to give away some of my belongings, another question arose that I thought was slightly, but distinctly different. Parked in the middle of a street during protests, street vendors came to the window offering many things I did not want to buy. Yet one of them asked, "If I give you something, will you give me something in return?" I found this question to come up a lot. Looking through my bag, I had only expensive gear that I needed for the trip. Throughout the trip I found an important difference between giving gifts and giving something for people to remember you by. After handing out probably over 20 drawings, I wish I'd had a more simple and small things to represent who I am and where I come from. Pictures of family, symbols of home, or a favorite book would have been helpful to share a part of home with my friends away from home.

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

Helping you think about a larger way of "helping"