Service learning provides perspective

After problems with passports, an ice storm and a canceled flight, we began to wonder if our trip to Merida, Mexico, at the beginning of February, was perhaps not meant to be. As it turned out, it was just the opposite – exceedingly worth the trouble it took to get there.

This was not a vacation for my 13-year-old daughter Hannah and me, but rather an international service learning trip with Wheeling Jesuit University’s physical therapy department.

It was Hannah’s first service learning trip. Her experience highlights the dual purpose of service learning: helping a community in need through her hard work while broadening Hannah’s perspective of the world and her place in it. From Hannah’s perspective, the experiences of working with children and adults with disabilities in another culture in conditions which were less than ideal were “eye opening.” She continually contrasted her life in Wheeling with the lives people lead in Merida. More importantly, Hannah could contrast how she (and her peers) cope with life here with how the children and adults she encountered on the trip – far more challenged and disadvantaged – cope with their lives. What makes a day good or bad, or challenging or fulfilling, is so radically different.

She observed, “Even though West Virginia is a poor state, the people there (in the Yucatan) have so much less; but, they’re so much more grateful and they’re happier. I thought it was great how this man in the homeless shelter was so thrilled and thankful to get new shoes. He went around showing everyone his new shoes. It makes me feel like I should be more grateful and realize that I’m lucky to have all of these things and experiences.”

The trip was designed to bring students (and others from the community, like us) in contact with people from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, to see firsthand what it’s like to deal with inconsistent and poor quality basic health care and public services in a community. The international experience was an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in an area outside of the United States and reflect on a global aspect of health care and their role on a much larger scale.

The focus was to help those who do not have access to the basic health care or rehabilitation services, to make students aware of the fundamental reason for living a life of service, and to provide an opportunity for the participants (both from the United States and abroad) to share their knowledge and skills. I hope the primary lesson we all learned is that there is much to do in this world, and that anyone can serve.

These kinds of experiences can have a strong impact on young people and their development. Hannah recalled, “There was a man who didn’t have legs, but he didn’t let that slow him down. He wanted his room painted, so he just did it. He worked making handbags out of pop tabs and made a living doing that. It makes me want to take advantage of all of the opportunities that I have and not take them for granted.”

On another day, we worked at a daycare center for underprivileged children, whose single mothers earn about $8 a day.

We were charged with repainting the center’s rusted, rundown playground and repairing windows that did not shut properly. Working all day in the hot sun paid off as the playground was transformed with paint and the windows worked as they should. This experience made a big impression on Hannah who reflected, “I thought that even though it was hard work, it was worth a lot to me because it was going to help people and make kids happy.”

What might appear trivial to her peers back home – an old-fashioned swing set and jungle gym – was the center of the lives of the children at that day care center. Hannah couldn’t see that without gaining perspective on what’s important in life.

Service learning is a dynamic process, through which students’ personal and social growth is tightly interwoven into their academic and cognitive development. There are, thankfully, hundreds of service learning projects available to students (and adults) of all ages. Everyone can serve – here in the Ohio Valley or virtually anywhere in the world – and by doing that, we all grow as we mend the world with our work.

– Kathy Shapell has a master’s degree in special education. She is the director of the Augusta Levy Learning Center for autistic children in Wheeling and the mother of two children.