A Solemn Service
This essay was written in response to a volunteer trip to Mexico on January 11th, 2014. Though it took me a while to finish the essay (school got in the way), I was determined to finish it. The following essay details my gradual shift in attitude towards volunteering: from helping for the sake of credit to helping for the sake of humanity.
A SOLEMN SERVICE
Los Angeles; January 11, 2014. The doors of a bland tourist bus hissed open to let the cold 6:00 AM air in. Following a group of student volunteers, I stumbled along in a morning stupor. Our mission was simple: we were to help at an orphanage, nothing new; we were to assist at a rehabilitation center, nothing more. But—contrary to thought—everything about this experience was precisely new and more. Everything changed, and hence, my perspective changed. The morning me just didn’t know it yet.
The two hour long bus ride was tiring. I was tired from waking unusually early, and I was tired of the constant on-the-road lull: drive here for piano practice, drive there for afterschool tutoring. Now I’m driving across the Mexican border to volunteer, a near monthly tradition Global Youth Mission (GYM) members must uphold—a chore that I, high schooler in the running, must maintain should I want to look attractive on paper.
We arrived at the rehabilitation center after the noon sun had hit, and the place looked like the world’s smallest bunker had rented the world’s messiest grass plot. The plot was barren minus the large piles of old mattresses and recycled car parts dumped in the corners; the front yard contained only a small patio that shaded a dog lazy from the heat. Our host welcomed us dearly, and I was confused as to why he was tearing up. Only after a GYM chaperone translated did I understand that life was tough at the rehabilitation center. All help was welcome; any donations were blessed. At the time, I didn’t understand what sense there was in crying when 14 teens in white shirts and funky pants showed up. I couldn’t comprehend how difficult it was to live drinking tap water, where laundry was done by stirring clothes in a giant bucket with a wooden pool, when patients had to lie about never receiving lunch so they could eat their fill.
It was barbecue day. Lugging in some Costco brand hot dogs and a bag of coal, we fired up an old grill that fell into disuse because the center didn’t have money for coal. We set up a table and chopping stands, brought out plastic utensils and paper plates, spooned onions and tomatoes onto hot dogs that were freshly grilled. A single nurse slowly wheelchaired the fifty-some patients crammed in the little bunker into the yard. But for those too sick to leave bed, I was sent in to serve them. Patients didn’t smile for pictures or when served, and when did, they were missing several teeth. The day seemed like work on the assembly line—walk out, get plates, walk in, give plates. Those in high spirits were doused when the host told us that many of that we served were without family; many were diagnosed with chronic illnesses and, since they had no money, were to be dumped in some makeshift mass burial. We only stood in disbelief.
The midday lunch finished with an afternoon session: a preacher came down in casual clothing and read from a bible; a woman lead a song in a foreign language that everyone knew sang of endurance and hope. And while all these activities required physical involvement, they never changed me as much as the story of the little boy who shows up everyday to say hello to his uncle.
His name was Martin, and he just six years old. The host told us that the uncle was terminally sick with fatigue, and despite everyone telling Martin to stop, he would always come with a little gift to show his uncle. The day I went, he came with an old basketball and told uncle that they would play together after he was well. And despite all the odds against him, Martin still came because he held onto the belief someday things would get better. The boy’s actions were bolder than all our volunteer efforts, than all the sermons and songs, because he represented the hope so many of us had abandoned coming of age. Parents said to give up; we teenagers often succumb to stress and drugs. The day we left, I took a picture with them to serve as a reminder. The world seemed numb, and only when we left were expressions of gratitude given.
The sky was dark, and the atmosphere was tense. I felt confident that my day had been productive, but while our bland tourist bus cruised down the freeway, my bruised heart was beat up by such an upsetting burden of emotion. I won’t pretend that I started volunteering for some noble purpose or say that I got pure joy from seeing the smiles of those I helped—I didn’t; I don’t live up to that fairy tail stereotype volunteers go by because it’s just a fairy tale. To have helped others and receive nothing but happiness and fulfillment is to have nothing but a cold heart. Life after this trip was dreadfully solemn, but within sympathy, I realized the strength of determination. My first time serving those in need opened my eyes to a cruel, cruel world, so we, surviving children of a generation powered by individualism and selfish greed, must take the time to care for others. I learned volunteering isn’t about happiness or about helping others but about helping yourself: Helping yourself understand that whatever you do, you’re not the “i” in independent-of-the-world, you’re not just a number out of 6.5 billion that has no impact. We are global members of the human race protesting death, but where’s the humanity if we just keep looking forward? Only by serving those unfortunate enough to fall ill or lonely can we deny written fates the chance to break human hope and will. Persistence in face of impossible difficulties is our greatest strength—a six-year-old boy taught me that…
So I thought on it…
And silently signed up for the next Mexico trip.
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