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What Service Trips Mean to Me: The Power of Compassion and Human Connection

I’ve gone to Catholic school my entire life, so opportunities to go on service trips, or “mission” trips, have never been hard to find. From middle school to high school, they were almost everywhere I looked. At first, it always seemed like a good opportunity to get my service hours done so I could graduate. However, as I did more and more I realized why people even create and attend these trips in the first place. 

Camden, NJ, 2016

My first service trip was during the summer going into my junior year of high school. I went to Camden, New Jersey, with two chaperones and a small group of girls from my high school. We stayed at the Romero Center and spent a week working at food banks, community centers, and nursing homes around Camden. All through my years getting a Catholic education, I never was that religious. I often found myself feeling connected to God in my daily life, but never in church services or prayer rituals. I always felt the strongest connection to my faith and to God through other people. I felt this strength in Camden through my teacher who was with us, through the girls I was with, the people running the Romero Center, and all the people of Camden. I did not want to try to teach anyone anything, to really even help anyone at all. I felt like I was the one who was learning from everyone around me. This feeling that overcame me in Camden was not fleeting, it really stuck with me. Despite not really knowing where I stood in the realm of Catholicism, I always knew where I stood on seeing God in other people. 

My next service trip was one that I had been highly anticipating for most of my high school experience. Everyone at my school talked about the El Salvador trip; they wore the backpacks they got from there all around school, and it was the most glorified experience that my school had to offer. I knew that I wanted to go, but I also knew I needed to separate wanting to go for the sake of going, and wanting to go to again find that zen place of connecting with other people, with no barriers. I applied, got in, and was set to travel to El Salvador for a week the summer going into my senior year. While excited, I was really scared. I’ve always been anxious, always been afraid of trying new things and going to new places, and was most of all afraid of the unknown. I had maybe one or two close friends going on the trip, and I was nervous to go out of the country without a way to communicate with people from home. My reservations and fear held me back my first trip to El Salvador and hindered important connections. 

Despite being afraid, I learned a lot from my experiences in El Salvador. I watched the hard work of the people who ran our program, Project F.I.A.T (Faith in Action Together). I saw the extreme kindness everyone in the country showed our group, the dedication of the women who made bracelets at the daycare center, and the cheerfulness of every man, woman, and child, despite living in “unfavorable” conditions. My anxiety held me back from forming a lot of the relationships I wanted too, but I realized the power of simplicity and the power of love, a lot of which I did by passively watching. The important relationships I created during my first time in El Salvador was with the other students in my group. I watched people I never knew before demonstrate immense care, patience, and love for others. I created new friends that I did not even know would last me a lifetime. Most importantly, I realized that we can never judge one another too harshly, until we looked below the surface. Again, I found the power of human connection, just through a different medium. This trip came during some of the hardest months of my life, and I remember feeling happier in El Salvador than I ever had in my entire life.

Las Delicias, El Salvador, 2017

So when I graduated high school, I knew I needed to do another trip. All through my senior year, I was restless thinking about not partaking in another service trip. I hopped online, did some research, and found a trip through G.L.A (Global Leadership Adventures), and impulsively signed up for a two and a half week trip to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala with twenty other high school students from all over the country. Again, my anxiety kicked in, this time with more fervor than ever before because I knew no one at all going with me. Again, I had experienced some serious mental health issues prior to this trip, and I felt really scared. However, immediately after arriving, I was ready to commit to trying my best to completely immerse myself in a new group of people and a new culture. I opened up to these twenty strangers, telling them stories I had never told anyone, and I felt free. Once I did that, I was finally able to get off the sidelines, to form the relationships I had seen everyone around me making. 

Two moments from Guatemala are cemented in my memory: a car ride with our driver and program director, Nayo, and a tender moment with Melvin, a child from the school we were helping renovate. On one of our long drives, I sat up in the front of our van knowing that I never sleep in car rides, and I wanted to take in the views of the mountains. I was nervous, but I tried my best to talk to Nayo completely in Spanish. I asked him about his time as a driver, his history in Guatemala, his views on the Guatemalan civil war, and what his family was like. Though we stumbled through some language barriers, talking with Nayo was insightful and rewarding. I got to experience Guatemala through a different lens, and I got to make a new friend. In my next favorite moment, I was helping out with the fourth-grade class, when a little boy started crying. He would not stop, and the teacher told me it was fine; he did it often and he just missed his mother. She asked if I would try and comfort him. All it took was me going over, and asking him some questions, for Melvin to curl up in my lap and cry. Over and over, he told me that his mom was never coming back. I reassured him she would be back soon repeatedly, as well as that his mom loved him. His crying relented, but it was soon time for me to go. The next day, Melvin came running over to me and thanked me, and we were inseparable for the rest of the week. I think about him all the time, and it was one of the hardest goodbyes I have ever had to say. Finally, I realized how important it was that I show up for people, that I listen to people, that I take chances and try my best to form new relationships.

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, 2018

This past summer, I went back to El Salvador on my high school’s alumni trip. I was excited to go back to my happy place and ready to make it the experience I wished I had the first time around. I was determined to try, to make new relationships that would last. While some people remembered me, I knew it was on me to connect with others and to work my butt off. I had meaningful conversations, worked past my anxiety to introduce myself to people rather than smile and wave. And again, I learned just how important that was. This trip to El Salvador taught me the power of being intentional, of noticing other people, of valuing them not just inwardly but outwardly also. People like Lynette, the head of the program, and Don Miguel, the leader at our worksite, taught me compassion, forgiveness, and the importance of faith. I did not know I needed to be retaught these lessons until I was. 

I need El Salvador, I need Guatemala, and I need Camden because they reaffirm the desire to be close to others, and to be close to God. Service trips get a bad reputation in the social media world because of those who abuse them. Service trips are not charity, they are not an Instagram post, and they are not a power grab. When done right, service trips are nothing more than an affirmation of humanity, of compassion, and a testament to why relationships truly matter. I could not be more grateful to my high school, to the programs I’ve done, and to the people I’ve done them with. I could not be more thankful to the people of Camden, New Jersey; Las Delicias, El Salvador; and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. I have learned more from you than anything in my life, and I know it is a fire in me that will never burn out. All in all, I am thankful and I am learning.

Las Delicias, El Salvador, 2019


Image Credits: Casey Leach

Casey Leach

Kenyon '22

Casey is a senior English major at Kenyon and is most likely either watching reality tv with her roommates or drinking diet coke at an inappropriate hour. She is also a huge advocate for reading rom-coms on her kindle and making bad jokes.
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