What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

by Vanessa Ehler / Dec 18, 2014 /

My first trip to Ecuador in 2003 was fabulous. As an ambitious 22 year old, I recruited a small group of young eager teachers and spent the summer teaching English to very poor children on the coast of Ecuador. We had a great time in the exotic land all the way in South America. We met the students' families, played soccer with the kids, had a pig roast and even built a playground. We left two months later feeling a unique sense of satisfaction and accomplishment available only to the privileged among us.

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

For 30 minutes each school day, more than 100 students burst out of the "school house" doors to a dusty dirt field for recess. A lucky few played with the one deflated soccer ball while others scattered about in dusty circles chatting, giggling or throwing rocks. Having only one ball was limiting for this large group, as was the lack of other activities, materials and games. The mayhem that ensued during this recess period was unrivaled in my history as a student and as a teacher: not just wild screams of excitement, laughter, and chatter, but also a general lack of structure. A complete lack of structure in fact; this was chaos, a free-for-all, wild and hysterical.  When one of the American teachers suggested building a playground for them, we all immediately embraced the idea. Images of order calmed us. It's possible no single Ecuadorian knew why a playground was so necessary, but we knew it would make recess much better for both the students and the teachers. 

 

The very next day we bought the steel, employed the local welder, and engaged the students to help us dig holes. One week later, we bestowed unto these students (what I thought was) the best gift they had probably ever received. They no longer had to play with a deflated soccer ball and, what wasn't such a bad bi-product, we were absolute heroes.

 

Six months later and back at home in the US, we learned that the playground was gone and the students had returned to their wild soccer games with a deflated ball on a dusty dirt field. What happened to the playground? What happened to our masterpiece that provided order, structure, and fun for everyone? It seems the steel and other materials were in high demand and very few locals could afford to purchase them. Since the students had always been "just fine" playing deflated dirt soccer and those New Yorkers were no longer there, it seemed that the playground's steel was up for grabs.

 

I was horrified, offended, sad, and really discouraged. I judged these ungrateful "thieves" for not caring about the youth enough, especially when I remembered how hard I worked to build it, sweating and groaning through the perpetual stomachache I had while still adjusting to the local food and bacteria. What went wrong here? I could feel that something was missing from my first experience in Ecuador, I just didn't know what it was.

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

Fast forward a decade or so later, one in which I've traveled, observed and discussed the value of travel quite a bit, and I find myself in the Dominican Republic with a group of US based teachers and an organization called Nobis World that, "...supports youth, educational and community leaders in building skills to analyze issues that impact our society and take actions towards initiating positive change."* The facilitator of this trip to the DR, Christen Clougherty, distinguished herself from among the many trip leaders and co-workers of my decade plus of travel as not only incredibly dedicated and informed, but effective, accurate, and sensitive. We participated in reflection activities like "Where are you from?" (which I prefer to call "Who and What have been your life influences?") and the "Power Privilege Continuum" (which gave a visual to the connection between status and access). While both observing how to run a service learning project, and actually doing one, we studied Nobis World's Global Service Learning Model. This model walked us through each crucial step toward a reciprocal and meaningful connection with another community. We learned, eventually, that this connection with the community is the most important piece of Service Learning

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

Sure, there's value in giving time or money, or even a playground to those "in need," but what's most effective in a Service Learning trip is learning what is valuable to others. I thought back to my experience in Ecuador and began to finally understand why thrusting a playground on a community of non-playground-goers was senseless and arrogant. Taking the time to observe the community's past and present was essential and had been completely missing in my Ecuador experience. I had been asking myself "how can I use as little money as possible to make this place look just like home?", when I should have been observing and listening for what was actually valuable to them, not me.

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

As this idea of 'giving what the receiver wants instead of what I hope she wants' developed in my mind, I began to think about my own life in the United States. I regularly give gifts for birthdays, showers, weddings, etc., but was I disregarding what people really wanted and forcing what I wanted them to have? My aunt, for example, has literally asked me 'why I waste my money' after most occasions on which I give her a gift. I assumed she just wasn't seeing the beauty in the ornate jewelry boxes, hand-knit sweaters, or handmade earrings from various exotic places around the globe that I had been gifting her for years. It turns out, my aunt has her own particular and specific interests and style. While those interests and styles were not appealing to me, they were very attractive to my aunt. As soon as I recognized what they were, that they made her very happy and that they should inspire the gifts I give her, I no longer had to hear, "Why did you waste your money?" - and it was as simple as that.

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

Back in the DR, the local connection whom we worked with daily at the Mariposa Foundation was invaluable. Her name is Patricia and, without her, or someone like her, this program would never have been so incredibly powerful. She has not only lived through the post-Trujillo struggle, but is also married to a Dominican, has lived and worked there for 20+ years, and has started a foundation to help young local girls and women. She speaks Spanish and everyone knows who she is. She's a true "local."  This last point was crucial to earn trust, entrance, and ultimately friendship with other locals with whom we wanted to form a partnership.  

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

Christen and Nobis World walked us through every step of the Service Learning Model. Months before our trip, we were asked to read and comment on a few books about the Dominican Republic. These books outlined the history of Trujillo's influence, the pervasive poverty in the region, and the racism between Dominicans and Haitians. With this background, I had a context to more deeply understand the struggle in the daily life of a Dominican. After reading these books, participating in the activities and book discussions and visiting the Dominican communities, I began to see how unsuitable a playground, for example, would be there. Not because Dominican children don't like to play on playgrounds, but because my want for them to have it was much greater than theirs. The strength of my desire to "help" was clouding my availability to listen. 

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

I remembered why I was led to participate in this trip: my specific expertise as a teacher (a profession that requires a great deal of listening). My school is transitioning the travel program, and service learning is an important part of the school's future. I had planned to report back to my school about how to run a service learning project.  When I arrived at the Mariposa Foundation, the focus for our project, I was looking forward to working with the students. My years of lesson planning, assessing, creating, and playing with children was valuable. I could teach these kids; I could show them how to learn. So, I confidently entered a classroom and began to talk to the students. I thought I'd investigate and then teach them whatever was missing (because, certainly something was missing). To my surprise, however, no one seemed interested in me. Everyone seemed just fine without me. 

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

My inclination and itching desire to work with the students felt familiar. I felt that same desire to give them what they "need" as when I was back in Ecuador watching the chaos during recess, and all those years giving presents to my aunt. I didn't listen to the community in Ecuador, but I was ready to listen in the DR. Of course, the Dominican teachers are perfectly capable of teaching their students, and are doing a fine job. It wasn't for me to decide how they teach their classes. What wasn't so fine, however, according to the Dominican teachers, was the influx of volunteers that regularly appeared at the doorstep of the Mariposa Foundation with little to no teaching experience. While those at Mariposa were delighted to have these volunteers, no one knew how, or had the time, to train them. I was finally seeing where my specific expertise was needed, I was finally seeing what they wanted. My group of trained and experienced teachers could work alongside the Dominican teachers to help create a training program for the volunteers, a program that was on-going and could be added to in the future. As soon as I better understood what was valuable to this community, I was able to more clearly define my role there. I was also able to tread lightly, make less of an imperial stomp through the country, respect my new friends, and make an actual difference.  

 

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

What To Do (and What Not To Do) on a Service Learning Project

 

 

Vanessa Ehler teaches Spanish and yoga at a progressive Quaker school in downtown Brooklyn, a place where many conversations about race, diversity and equity take place. These discussions, along with her travels, have helped fuel her drive to support social justice. Vanessa lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Oliver.

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Jon DeGraff

 

 

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