Serve, don't help: Communicate love

Tara Cahanap '13 reflects on the meaning of "service" after her spring break trip to the Dominican Republic with Project Apoyo.

I remember the day we got the e-mail calling for applicants to Project Apoyo. Subject line: “Great Community Service Opportunity.” Images of collecting donations and teaching school children formed in my mind. I was so caught up in creating this idea of being a good person that I lost the essence of the entire trip in the process. Not until the first day in class did I realize exactly what “service” meant. Being part of this trip didn’t mean reaching down from our places of privilege and comfort to give these children aid from afar. Being part of this trip meant leaving behind the luxuries and complications of our lives back home, becoming a part of this community and working alongside the children to learn things about ourselves we never would have seen before.

We were outsiders to these kids. Never before had it been so hard to earn someone’s trust. They were unwilling to learn because they perceived us as Americans who were trying to make them better people by teaching them English. And until then, I thought so too. Then I met Josue.

Josue sat in the corner in one of our 3rd grade classes with his friends who would take any opportunity they were given to make fun of the way we taught, or the mistakes in our Spanish. We thought the only solution was to assert our authority and demand obedience. We didn’t find a better answer until we took each student on one-on-one.

Service meant sitting there with his friends, asking them to correct my Spanish so they could help me teach them better. Service meant sitting on the sand in the playground and hashing out the English syllable by syllable. Service meant acting out the words no matter how silly it made me look. Service meant learning just as much as they did.

Then I realized what this was really about. This program did teach English, but it taught me how to be a human being. Being there, in Rosa Esmester with a class full of third graders who didn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth, made me realize that these kids weren’t simply being given the keys to a new language. We were here because we were giving them the reassurance that people cared about their success. We were giving them the hope that there were people out there who strongly believed and wanted them to become better people.

It was about the amazement and awe these kids felt when they looked down at their paper and realized that someone had taken the time to teach them how to count in English. Even if we were having trouble communicating over the language barrier, we had successfully communicated love.
That last day on the playground, we were saying our goodbyes and assuring our students that they would be getting new teachers the next week and that they would learn more English than they could have ever imagined. As I turned to go, I was stopped by a tiny embrace from behind. I turned to see Josue, crying into my Outreach 360 T-Shirt. He held back his tears and demanded to know when I was coming back. “I’ll see you later,” I replied.

When Crider announced that it was time to go, Josue whispered a “thank-you” into my now tear-soaked shoulder. Right then, I knew that he wasn’t thanking me for teaching him how to say “Monday” or how to say “smart”. He was thanking me for showing him love and with one last hug, I realized that I was thanking him for the exact same thing.