I would call myself a “recovering brat.” Living in upper middle class suburbia, I became immersed in a culture of “me.” This began to change when I developed a group of friends that were interested in going outside the normal teen activities to make a difference.
The summer after senior year, I finally decided to join some of my friends on their youth trip to the Appalachian Mountains. Over 60 teens crammed into vans and drove through the night to reach our middle of nowhere spot.
Let me back it up a bit! At the orientation for this trip, I found out that most kids would be bathing in a lake because the water smelled like rotten eggs and we couldn’t bring hair dryers! This was already a fate worse than death. I thought my friends were nuts for being so excited about not showering.
I had never seen anything like what I saw on our trip. There was a main drag with a Wal-Mart, Burger King, and all the regular stores from home. Make a small turn off this road and you witnessed extreme poverty. Young girls with multiple children and homes without running water were commonplace.
I was assigned to the outreach team. We traveled through the Appalachian Mountains giving out basic necessities to people in need. We were directed to a certain place that was referred to as “the hole.” This was a muddy field with about 20 trailer homes, most of which had no refrigeration, running water, or a real bathroom. It would be the site of a life defining moment for me. At 18 I had never been concerned for people other than my immediate family or friends. Poverty was staring me straight in the face and there was no turning back.
The children at “the hole” stole our hearts. They were so thankful for a loaf of bread, milk, and some new clothes. We quickly bonded with them and went back each day to visit, often bringing more clothes and food. On our last day, a little girl named Jennifer tugged on my shirt and asked for a dress.
I pulled one out of the bag and she began to cry. “I will get it dirty,” she said. Jennifer had no bathtub or shower in her trailer. At four years old, the simple joy of feeling clean was out of reach. We took her down to a nearby creek and helped wash away some of the dirt on her arms and legs. Embracing her new dress, Jennifer’s eyes were filled with joy as she ran around in her new outfit.
This may seem like a simple silly moment, but it changed my life. I could never again pretend to live in my suburban bubble of selfishness. I truly believe this experience defined the woman I was to become.
You may think to yourself “I could never do that!” Well, this girl who once was addicted to her hair products understands! I strongly urge you to take just a portion of your summer to volunteer. If you are not sure where to start, consider calling retirement homes, programs that serve the poor, or your local community center. Get some friends to volunteer together and make it fun. You can also find volunteer opportunities near you by visiting the Corporation for National & Community Service.
I am writing this on the eve of a trip I will take with ten of my students to Cincinnati, Ohio. We’ll be volunteering for a week providing services to families in crisis and transition. I am proud of the young women who will be giving up a week of sunning and sleeping late for giving back.
Service builds CHARACTER and COMPASSION. These are two qualities our world is screaming out for. So why not consider digging deep this summer, even if it’s just for a day? The beach will always be there, I promise. If you are volunteering this summer, please share your stories here!