Saturday, June 4, 2016

The First Week of the Rest of My Life

There are several landmarks in my life map that have proven to be significant turning points in my personal development. This week has been, thus far, the most important of those landmarks. It is so difficult to put into words the exact impact that this experience has had on me because it is a feeling that has no words, but rather strikes a chord deep within my very heart and soul. Therefore, I have pinpointed a few key moments from the trip that, I believe, begin to sort of piece together my sentiments.

The first of these moments was the very first time that I was able to interact with the kids at Pedro Plains Primary School on Monday of the trip, our first day on the site. I began walking over to the group of basic school children, and about four of them immediately sprinted over to me and ran into my arms. These children had absolutely no idea who I was and here they were, running at me with their arms and hearts wide open. If pure happiness has a definite form, I'm pretty sure this would be it. I can't even explain how warm I felt (and not just temperature-wise) as so many of these beautiful children leaped into my arms and held on tight, begging me not to put them down. These children were shrieking with laughter and had the absolute biggest smiles on their faces with nothing more than a tree to hang around on, some bubbles that we brought, and their new American friends. It was absolutely so refreshing to see this mentality, as far too often I see children in America who are bored even with hundreds of gadgets and games. I am still trying to wrap my head around this concept: that the people of Jamaica live in a third world country that's in economic turmoil, yet are still the happiest, kindest, and most loving people I have ever seen.

Another turning point also came during our time at Pedro Plains, towards the end of Tuesday. I had on my favorite pair of purple and yellow sunglasses that were super reflective and cool. The kids who were there were simply fascinated by them, so I let some of them wear them for a few minutes, then I eventually took them back. Towards the end of the day, as we were beginning to leave, a small girl came up to me and shyly asked if she could have them. My very first instinct was to immediately say no, but instead I recognized that giving her these glasses would probably make her entire month. This was a key turning point in my own personal development on this trip, as one-week-ago me probably wouldn't have given them up. I realized that I have the privilege and convenience of hopping in my car, driving to the store, and buying a new pair of sunglasses anytime I want. The small girl graciously accepted the glasses and ran off, showing off her new shades to everyone and marveling at their shininess. This is just another example of how these kids are so happy and amused by what we consider to be the most simple of things.

A third special moment came during my time at Church Hill Primary School during the second half of the week. As we were finishing up lunch, Kaye asked for two volunteers to work on a new project, and Melanie and I volunteered immediately, having no idea what we were about to get into. Kaye led us over to what was a snack bar in progress and asked us to paint the entire inside bright yellow. Not only was the paint oil based (aka very smelly and practically impossible to clean), but the tiny shed was extremely dirty, hot, and swarming with mosquitoes and countless other insects (including a centipede). However, none of these factors really even phased me (except for the centipede) because I was with Mel. We worked together seamlessly to warn each other of especially large insects, dripping paint, and spots missed. Mel was one of my peer mentees this year, and being able to spend one-on-one time with her under such unique conditions was truly special. Even though she acted like a real adult more than me for the majority of the time (i.e. was infinitely more calm about the centipede incident), I got to share some of my insight with her during our chit chat, which was very special for me. On top of being able to connect with one of my peer mentees, the work we were doing also proved to be meaningful. During the lulls in our conversation, I found myself envisioning the excitement of the children who would soon be storming this snack bar during recess. I could picture the bell ringing and a horde of children sprinting over, jostling to see what snacks were up for grabs, running off with their new treasure. Knowing that I was the person doing the literal dirty work to complete something that would serve hundreds of children for years to come made up for the fact that I wasn't able to see this pan out in real life.

A final moment that I want to share isn't one that I can particularly pinpoint, but was rather a realization that came to me gradually during our final day at Church Hill while I was helping to paint the exterior of the school. Throughout the whole week, I was always trying to think about why my contributions specifically were meaningful and important. While painting the school, I was finding it a bit difficult to find an answer; I suppose it was harder to grasp at first since I wasn't working on anything that wasn't already there. However, I realized that this fresh coat of paint was one of my most meaningful contributions yet, because it is not only important that the school has facilities, but it is also highly important that these facilities are visually appealing so that school is a place kids want to keep coming back to. With new bright colors, I could see these kids running up to school every day awed and excited. I firmly believe that education is one of the most important things in life, and it is especially a major key to these children who have such limited opportunity. This train of thought put into perspective the core reason of why all of the work we accomplished this week was so, so, so important.

These moments do a sufficient job at summarizing what impacted me during my time on the work sites, but I also must take time to talk about my incredible peers with whom I was fortunate enough to share this experience. I have never been a part of such a group that immediately and seamlessly just fit together. It was as if we were all pieces of a puzzle that had been strewn across various social scenes on campus, and when we were all put on that bus together, we just fit. I don't think I have ever laughed so hard in my whole life as I did during this week. I thought I was going to drown more than a few times because I was laughing so hard while in the ocean and forgot how to tread water. Every person in the group brought something so unique and special to the table. Most of all, everyone was beyond willing to get their hands dirty and help in any way possible. I don't think I heard a single complaint during the entire week, despite buckets of sweat, hundreds of mosquito bites, and tons of strenuous work. I've never been so motivated to do physical labor for hours on end, and I owe it all to these AMAZING people. The memories we shared during the down time will last a life time, between the countless bus ride sing-a-longs, hundreds of memes, endless rounds of Spot It, conversations about gross bodily functions, sand fights, heart-to-hearts, asking Merit to open the window (NO!), shouting "PASTA SWEAT!" "MUD!" and "BEEP BEEP!" at each other, making conga lines in the pool, jumping into waterfalls, and so so so many others. Thank you to all of you, from the bottom of my heart, for making this experience as wholesome and fun and incredible as humanly possible. I think my heart grew about 20 sizes bigger this week just to make enough room for all of you. I couldn't stop thinking about my favorite song from Wicked as we were saying our final goodbyes: "It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime, so let me say before we part: so much of me is made of what I learned from you. You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart... and now whatever way our stories end, I know you have rewritten mine by being my friend. // I do believe I have been changed for the better... but, because I knew you, I have been changed for good."

So... what now? I have spent the past few years of my life investing in myself: my mental health, happiness, independence, and growth. I absolutely needed to take this time to gain an understanding of myself in order to gain as much knowledge as I did on this trip. Now it is time to spend the next few years taking the time to invest in the world. Through my position in my sorority as Vice President of Membership Development, I have been striving to teach all of my sisters to make self-reflection and self-improvement a habit. When I return to campus in the fall, I am going to shift that focus to encompass everything that I learned in Jamaica about service: how it is the work of the soul and probably the ultimate thing that you can be doing to better your own life as well as those of so many others. I want to make all of our community service events meaningful. These are my first concrete plans to start spreading my newfound passion for service like wildfire. After that... who can say for certain?


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