Service not Selfies: What I learned from my first service trip abroad.

Burrowed in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, the town of Hagley Gap was the first place I ever traveled abroad. This rural town lies in a valley along a crumbled road 11 km from Blue Mountain Peak, the tallest mountain in Jamaica. The 30km journey from Kingston can take up to 2 hours as the steep incline is riddled with sharp turns, narrow passages, and the occasional stream crossing. Hagley Gap is home to roughly 200 people who all live in scattered houses along the main road that leads to a river stream and out past to St. Thomas. The community survives on the local coffee industry. Tourists and hikers occasionally pass through on their way up to Blue Mountain Peak but tend the lodge and spend time further up the mountain. One of the pillars of the community is non-profit, The Blue Mountain Project (BMP). This organization serves the community by trying to increase the economic potential, establish accessible medical care, and provide better educational opportunities. The Blue Mountain project strive to work with the community it serves and collaborates with the town on their mission and projects.

In 2011 I was selected to go on a service trip with my university to work with BMP I was more preoccupied with the idea of a tropical vacation and taking good pictures. I did not travel ‘woke.’

“Woke – Aware of what’s going on, related to social justice and activism. “

I embarked on my spring break engaging in service but not really looking for the meaning in it all. It didn’t help that, at the time, the organization had little meaningful work to do because of the time of year. We were given fix it up’ projects to do. Most of these things were band-aid projects that would fall apart or would need to be partially redone properly by someone else. Things like painting or gardening; things that community members would normally do.

During my trip I was also more inclined to take selfies and play with the local kids than reflect on why I was there. Nothing clicked with me during my first trip to the Gap. I saw the people, lived with a host family. I saw how impacted the community was by it’s location. I saw the kids make the 3k journey up the steep path to school. I saw the people take a crowded 2 hour long bus ride daily to and from Kingston. I saw the community rely solely for water on the stream and rain. I saw all this, but I didn’t wake up. I was more concerned with myself and having a good time. Concerned with having good pictures to share with people back home. Wanted to make it look like I was a good person, someone who volunteers. I basically, just wanted to feel good about myself.

When I got back to the States, I looked back on my experience. Going through the pictures I took, I started to notice most of them were selfies with a child or ‘poverty porn.’ I had failed to record the incredible view of the mountains, failed to realize what my service trip was actually about, and failed to make any kind of difference. The work I had done hadn’t really impacted anyone, myself included. I hadn’t changed or gained any new perspective. We did nothing that the community members couldn’t or don’t already do for themselves.

I feel so useless after returning. I was so angry at myself for being so self-involved, so shallow. I could do better. So, I did.

I returned to Jamaica five months later. This time I made sure that my volunteering was necessary and made sure I researched before I left so, that for this trip I would be less ignorant. I was googling random yet really informative things: ‘rural poverty,’ ‘Jamaican coffee farming,’ ‘Jamaican school systems,’ ‘rural healthcare access’. Anything I could think of to educate myself so that I would not make the same mistake and miss an opportunity to grow.

When I returned that August I had been assigned to be a Literacy teacher for the non-profit’s ‘Back to School Camp.’ The camp was one week at Minto Primary School and one week at Penlyne Castle Primary school, both local to the Hagley Gap community. We taught grades k-8. Each teacher was assigned either a grade to be in charge of or a subject to teach. This service made me feel like I was making a difference. Summer learning loss is a huge issue, even here in the States. There can be no harm done in this service. Every kid can use some extra tutoring before the school year starts. If myself and the other volunteers hadn’t have come down I’m not sure if these kids would have gotten any other learning opportunities over the summer months. Knowing that made me feel like what we were doing was important.

During the school days I would do a grade directed lesson plan. We wrote letters to our future selves, had a spelling bee, played word games, and much more. I could see the kids enjoying themselves and actually recalling information they had learned the previous year.

Penlyne Castle Primary School

The hike to school every morning involved a 2 mile trek up a hot partially paved road that clung to the side of the mountain. Local children would join us for our walk, unfazed by the gradient of the path to the schools. Between not being used to Jamaican food and walking through the mountainside village of Hagley Gap, I had already lost about 7lbs. by day 10. We held our tongues as much as possible when we wanted to complain we were tired or our feet ached from the trek. We understood that these kids make this journey every day to make sure they can get an education. The older children in the village though, the ones who had advanced to middle and high school, had an even longer journey ahead of them. They had to travel to Mavis Bank, a town about 6km down a curvy and steep mountainside road. Some were fortunate enough to have parents that could afford for them to take a bus but most had to make this trek on foot or with a bicycle.

The Back to School Camp administrator was a local teacher. Tessa had organized and planned the entire camp and just needed our help to facilitate the classes. Working with a community member instead of working for the community doing ‘fix it up’ projects made the service much different. We weren’t doing band-aid work that was assigned to us. We were working with this prominent community member to carry out his plan. He was the one the kids looked to when they had questions outside of a lesson. He was in charge. We were necessary to the camp to make sure there were enough teachers but Tessa made the camp what it was. He brought the community to the camp.

I was seeing it this time. I was seeing what the lives of the people in the community were this time and trying to empathize and understand their worldview because of these differences in our lives. I was able to see the structural barriers that can restrict someone. Even now, I still take for granted that there is a grocery store right across the street or if I ever got injured there is an urgent care close by. There, if you need groceries or get hurt you may need to travel all the way to Kingston.

Despite the things that make it difficult to live in a rural community, Hagley Gap was filled with joy and endearing characters. Everyone is so proud to be a Jamaican, so proud to call Hagley Gap their home. There is a strong sense of community and trust. While the people in the community see and feel the constrictions of their income level and where they live, they don’t let that define who they are. Locals were eager to share their music, their dance style, and their folktales. The second time I left Jamaica I felt like I had returned having made a difference and that I had matured. Being there made me more aware of the world. I felt like I had made connection with the community. I travelled and dared to open my eyes to the reality around me and appreciate the experience, I believe it has made me a more thoughtful and intentional person for the future. I’m not perfect. I remember I still took pictures with kids and locals, but was more careful not to share those pictures, I kept those pictures/memories to myself. I also still enjoyed my free time. When school was out I had fun with the other volunteers and locals, enjoying island life and learning about the local culture. I’m sure I could travel ‘woker,’ but at least I can realize my own limitations and can hopefully continue to grow and discover these as a continue to travel.

I returned to Hagley Gap twice more to participate in the ‘Back to School Camp.’ I was able to form some lasting connections and incredible memories every time. It has been a few years but I hope to return one day.

Have you ever been on a service trip before? Where did you go? And MOST importantly, what did you do to service that community? Was your service meaningful? Share it in the comments below.:)))


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