I spent the majority of my 20’s involved in various sorts of service learning adventures, both on the volunteering side of things and the organizational end. I planted gardens everywhere from highland Ecuadorian cloud forests to remote Costa Rican jungles, to suburban city parks and various schoolyards. I coordinated groups of dedicated volunteers to help me create a successful farmer’s market and community garden in my hometown. I coordinated a large effort to spread information about sustainable technologies throughout Central America by driving two old school buses converted to run on used vegetable oil from California to Costa Rica, with a group of 25 activists, scientists, cooks, educators and even a token clown. Seriously.
I have learned quite a bit so far on this journey, and the most important piece that I offer you is this: Serve yourself, your own foundation and education, and you serve the world.
When you participate in community service abroad you are no doubt contributing your energy in a positive way. However, unless the project is well thought-out– from determining its priority within the community, to having locals involved in the process, to figuring out how it will thrive long after you are gone— it will likely be only a small gain within the local community. Things disappear quickly, despite genuine effort, when the proper channels are not in place to carry them on once the “service” is done. Not that your service is useless – it certainly isn’t – it can just be so much more. But, the larger point is that the service learning doesn’t stop there.
White water rafting through a pristine canyon with waterfalls pouring out of the rainforest onto your raft, hearing stories of the nearby indigenous community and their way of life, and the proposed dam that threatens the river’s ecology and the local’s income through ecotourism.
Driving through miles and miles of banana plantations, heading to the gorgeous Caribbean coast for a sunset swim, as a crop duster flies past, dropping toxic chemicals on the banana worker’s homes, playground, and water source.
Learning about the delicate ecology of the highland paramo on a hiking excursion with a local visionary who has been walking these forests all his life. Climbing trees, spotting colorful and elusive birds, drinking spring water straight from the source.
All of this is service. It is a means to discover how you can best serve; serve the planet, serve your community, serve other communities, and yes, serve yourself. Educational travel is a means of learning about a place and it’s people and what affects them, positively and negatively. Serving yourself turns into living a life a service.
What are the things in my daily life that affect this rainforest and other precious natural environments?
What things do I purchase as a consumer that affect this community and the health of these people?
How do my choices as a consumer affect my home community?
What small things can I do that will serve the planet and all living things on a daily basis?
All of this and more you can learn on a quality eco-immersion expedition; through authentic interactions with local people and even visionaries with fascinating projects, through understanding ecosystems, local economies, and agriculture; through dedicated time for reflection. And when I say “learn”, I don’t mean that you understand new facts as you do when reading a book. You “learn” it in your core; it becomes your truth.
You see, the “project” part of the service is paramount, absolutely. But it’s the dedication to a life of service that makes for real change. Serve yourself, your own foundation and education, and you serve the world.