Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Service Learning

I did not want to go. Staring down the prospect of running my first summer school program eight hours after our flight landed seemed daunting. Leaving my wife and a 16 month-old to fend for themselves for eight days seemed unfair. We talk a lot about risk-taking in innovative leadership...well, supervising three dozen kids in a foreign country certainly included plenty of that. The layers of accountability for their safety and well-being seemed intimidating.

But in the spirit of "you learn something new everyday," this past week, I learned something new through an experience I've never had. For the past eight days, 35 of our high school students joined several administrators and teachers for a service trip in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. This was the second annual trip that our service club organized to play with orphans and teach in Mexican schools with heavy orphaned populations.

While this story may be personal to our experience, I hope our experience can inspire others to give their time to service, and learn a whole lot more in the process.

I was not planning to go on the trip for many of these reasons but one day, a student of ours changed my mind. A veteran of last year's trip, I met her at the cashier's counter in the main office. She was peeling off singles from a wad of cash she held in her hand. She deposited her $100 downpayment to go back to Mexico on the trip. I asked her where she got all the money.

"Well Mr. Sharos, I wash cars all year and these are the tips I have been collecting for this trip. I went last year and I cannot wait to go again this year."

So here is one of our students, working all year, for the opportunity to do more service work.

Seriously? I needed to get over myself. That day I told our principal that I would love to join if he would have me.

For as many roadblocks as I created for myself, I was nervous and anxious to see how it went. As I reflect on the lessons I learned from our work, I think three things stood out more than anything:

1. Once you create a culture of service, it will spread.

Last year's trip was only the beginning of an identity that we hope to create in our school. Ownership of our collective space under shared themes, phrases, and commonalities helps create a school building that both the students and staff can be proud of. As more students join the service trip, and return in the following years, we are creating an identity and culture of service that is contagious. I am proud to be associated with kids who are selfless with their time, talents, and treasures. The best "high" in education comes from watching our students have fun. This trip provided that opportunity, but also left me in awe of their collective sacrifice to help others.

2. Service learning breaks down walls for our students.

Our kids do not get to experience things like this all the time. Many of our families are first generation, blue-collar immigrants who came from Mexico seeking opportunity. In that struggle to adapt to this country, our kids are often subjected to "survival mode" at home and do not necessarily have access to the experience of traveling. In that vain, our kids found excitement in experiencing an airplane ride, a boat trip, and the simplicity of "Panchos Takos" for dinner. At the same time, they did so in the comfort of their home language and the familiarity of their own culture. As I struggled to adapt to the language and culture during the week, I often thought about how our kids must feel living in America-without these comforts. Every one of our faculty members should go on this trip just once to experience this phenomenon alone. The two-sided empathy I've gained has enriched my perspective of the students and the population we serve.

3. The suspension of reality is something we all need sometimes. 

The world we lived in for the past eight days was nothing like our world here- and that is ok. For the adults, it gave us the opportunity to unplug and enjoy the company of each other and our kids. Some of our students made friends with kids they normally would never talk to. The stories, laughs, and smiles we shared will travel back with us.

On the last night, we all took a dinner/dance cruise on the ocean. The adults looked on as our kids staged their own dance party on the deck of the boat. Our students were having so much fun after an exhausting week of 100 degree heat and a jam-packed schedule. They also managed to physically pull many of our adult chaperones to join them in the dance circle.

The symbolism of that goes much deeper than dancing a few steps to Marc Anthony's, "Vivir mi Vida."

Like the student who pulled me in with her downpayment of singles, the lessons learned
from this trip will last a lifetime.

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