I’ve been on multiple service trips in high school and in college and they have all been rewarding experiences. These trips enriched my experience, changed my perspective, and gave me a sense of purpose and mission.
I always learned so much from the communities that I served. I met dedicated and passionate people whose desire to serve often prompted them to start organizations or become involved in various causes. I would leave feeling inspired and ready to talk about my trip to everyone and anyone who would hear me.
Usually people would politely listen, but it was obvious that they did not really care, and that was incredibly frustrating. Here I was, after this amazing experience, trying to share it with others, but people really do not care. My energy and desire to translate my service into some form of activism would dissipate as I got back into my normal routine and received lackluster responses to my service trip experience.
I suspect I am not the only one who has gone through this kind of passion drain after going on a service trip. So, what exactly was the point of going away for a week of service? What am I supposed to do with what I learned during that week?
Not everyone who signs-up for a service trip genuinely cares about what they are doing and some are more interested in how the trip will look on an their resume. This is fine. In fact, those are the people who need service trips the most because they are so worried about getting ahead and what their next step is going to be that they need the week to pause and get to know the people that they might be leaving behind.
To those to whom service is important, they see service not as a band-aid solution, but as an important first step to solving a prevalent and persistent problem. Those who serve out of compassion want to learn, and they care about making some kind of change.
“Solidarity” is a popular word during service trips. The trip leaders always wanted to reinforce the idea that we need to be in “solidarity” with the people we were serving. We are encouraged to listen to their stories and learn about poverty and homelessness from their perspective and from the perspective of people who serve the community on a regular basis.
To be in solidarity with the poor and homeless, you do not need to go on a poverty tour around the world. There is plenty of poverty in the United States, in your home state and even in your hometown.
In high school and college I participated in some of the most meaningful trips that took place in my city. My freshman year at Boston College, I participated in a service trip that went to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Being from Massachusetts, I noticed that the only time Lawrence was mentioned in the local news was because of a robbery, a shooting or corruption in the local government.
During my week long service trip, I was able to learn about the persistent poverty that plagues Lawrence and about the social dislocation that many people in Lawrence were experiencing. The immigration boom and the exodus of the manufacturing jobs that were central to the artificial creation of the city (Lawrence was artificially created during the industrial revolution) have left many people unemployed and little to no investment in the city. I was able to learn about what was actually going on in Lawrence, not just a sensationalized story that does not provide an accurate snapshot of reality.
I wanted to be able to communicate what I learned to my parents—especially to my mother, who frequently watches local news and is easily manipulated by sensationalism. I am sure she heard my concerns and my attempt to draw attention to how lack of economic opportunity often causes social disorder, but I am pretty sure she did not understand.
I am not talking about starting a non-profit by yourself, but it could include finding additionally ways to get involved in that community after the trip. Look out for articles, attend some town hall meetings if the community is close by and meet with state and local politicians.
As future leaders, its great to participate in service trips and projects, but it means nothing if the trip remains a trip and does not evolve into something more.