Throughout my high school experience, I had the opportunity to travel abroad multiple times. These travels included a student exchange to Australia, two Duke of Edinburgh Gold trips to Peru and an International Round Square Conference in South Africa. Each of my experiences gave me a new perspective in terms of community service, the diversity of people in the world and the challenges faced by those in developing countries. Not only have these experiences broadened my global awareness; they have also helped me grow and continue to grow into who I am.
When I arrived in Peru two years ago, it was my first exposure to a developing country. I thought I knew what to expect: barefoot hungry children, worn down houses and desperation. On my first day doing service at a shantytown called Las Palmas outside of the capital city, Lima, I found out my preconception was very wrong. The conditions were worse than I expected: stray dogs roamed all over, dust covered absolutely everything and a rotting stench filled the air. Fortunately, I was also wrong about the state of the people in the community. The children were happy and eager to play with us and each other, and the adults possessed a sense of pride in themselves and their community. The physical labour we performed was not enough. Upon our arrival home, a few friends and I decided we needed to do something more. We started fundraising in hopes of helping improve the community as much as we possibly could.
A few months later, along with other LCC representatives we set off to South Africa for an International Round Square conference. Besides partaking in the conference, we helped out at a daycare and school for kids who grew up in impoverished conditions. We only spent a few hours volunteering: taking care of the kids, painting a roof and playing soccer. I left the service days extremely upset. Between my experiences in Peru and South Africa, I noticed how happy the locals were in spite of their assumed “lack” of materials that we consider necessary for our happiness here in North America such as cell phones, cool shoes and ice cream desserts.
On the plane ride home I began to contemplate – why am I so lucky to have all that I do? What is the point of doing “service” for a few hours when at the end of the day these children’s lives are “unimproved”?
I returned home in a philosophical crisis. I wanted to help, Peru, South Africa, everywhere! I just didn’t know how to do it in a way that would actually help them, and improve their lives.
My friends and I who were already fundraising for the community in Peru decided we could start a micro-loan fund in the community, a lump sum of money that would go to starting businesses for women so they could be self-sufficient and help feed their families. After hours spent discussing how the fund would work with the mayor of Las Palmas, the town, and signing the necessary documents, we handed over the money to the mayor. While the money did end up in the community, we have yet to hear back on the happenings of the fund for the past eight months, so we do not know how it turned out. Unfortunately, all we can do is hope it ended up benefitting the community in some way. This is an example of why even though you may have good intentions, you have to be very careful when it comes to international service and make sure you trust the person dealing with your money.
Fortunately, we were more careful when we fundraised for the daycare we worked at in South Africa. The money was handed over to a woman who we had met and who worked to improve the day care, so she had already successfully dealt with donations like ours.
Ultimately, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from these experiences is that it’s important to learn about the world, because exposure is the first step to help making it a better place. Although in my life I hope I discover the “best” way for me to do service, there is certainly no right answer. Once you are exposed to an issue, it is very difficult to simply forget about it. Whether it’s in the city of Montreal or some remote village in India, it is important to realize what matters locally and internationally, and to do your best to help. – Sarah Salzman (Pre-U ’14)