Spring break. The vacation of vacations, the epitome of college freedom, the climax of spring semester entropy. (The only semi-acceptable excuse to stay drunk for a week without having to justify your own alcohol intake.) For college students, spring break is an opportunity to escape deadlines, responsibilities, and reality for a whole seven days, and as a self-indulgent nineteen-year-old, I originally planned on taking full advantage of the week.
However, as the semester progressed, I began to grow uncomfortable with the idea of filling my break with nothing but temporary gratification (essentially simulating an extended weekend in Athens.) I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to challenge myself in the process. I had heard through friends that there was a service organization on campus that offered alternative spring breaks focused on community service, and remembering that, I knew exactly what I was about to do. Acting on impulse (that's how I roll), I opened my laptop and went to the organization's website. I typed in my name, selected a trip, hit submit and paid the dues without a second thought.
There. I had done it.
Productive spring break? Check. But as I stared at the confirmation screen, I slowly came to terms with the fact that I had just committed myself to seven days of service in rural Southwest Virginia. Not exactly what most would consider "paradise." Furthermore, I had no idea what service I would be performing, but I knew that it was going to be tough. Half of me already regretted my blind optimism while the other half knew that I was about to experience something special.
As the trip date grew closer, the spring break FOMO was real. I heard people talking about their plans - trips to Fort Lauderdale, Destin, Italy, Nashville - and felt a tinge of jealousy. The night before my group departed, I almost decided to bail and go home. I was scared of what the trip would entail. More than that, I was scared of being uncomfortable during a time when most people would be treating themselves.
Nevertheless, at the bleak, cold break of dawn (like six o'clock in the morning) I hauled my luggage down the street, packed it in the van, and prepared for the adventure ahead. The week that followed was probably the best one of the semester. I spent seven days with my group focusing on resource shelter and access in rural areas, working at food banks and community gardens, and interacting with the surrounding community. It sounds cheesy, but through that experience, I truly learned so much about myself, loving others, and the importance of being active in serving one's community. I could go on for pages, but rather than doing that, I'll give you a cute little list of five overused phrases that have become a little more meaningful to me since embarking on this service trip:
1. Be the change you want to see.
I didn't realize how important this simple concept was until I experienced it firsthand. I, along with others, have a tendency to comment on flaws in society without having a set intention to fix the problem: "Man, it's a shame that such a beautiful community has become so overrun with trash. People should take care of their environment." "Food insecurity sucks! People in the world need to step up their game and take care of their neighbors." Everyone can spot issues in the world, but pointing out the obvious doesn't solve anything. Get involved! Find service organizations that focus on the issues that touch your heart and use your own hands to make a difference. Getting my hands dirty in Virginia was so fulfilling because I finally felt like I was a part of the solution to the issues facing this area. Being active in working toward fixing the problems we see is so important because it addresses issues in a way much more productive than words could ever be.
2. We're all human.
Homelessness, hunger, poverty - as much as we'd like to deny it, these subjects can be awkward to address. Interacting with people facing such real and prominent struggles can feel difficult, simply because we don't know how to approach the situation. Oftentimes, however, discomfort toward touchy subjects stems from the dissonance of realizing a problem exists but not feeling like you have enough to fix it. For example, you might feel uncomfortable walking through downtown Athens because you don't have enough money to give to every homeless person you pass. So you assume the position - hands in pockets, face down, eyes averted - and for some reason, this is much easier than facing the problem in front of you. Here's the thing: it doesn't have to be. A man I spoke to who was struggling with housing insecurity gave me one of the biggest wakeup calls I've received this year. He said, "Listen, people like me, we don't want your things. Things are nice, but we've learned how to live without them. We want your time. Talk to us, show us you care." Things are nice, but human interaction and compassion is invaluable, and every living person, regardless of their situation, is deserving of at least that.
3. Serving others well requires that you let others serve you.
I'm addicted to being in control. There, I said it. I like to be completely, one hundred percent, unquestionably responsible for everything I do. I was the kid in middle school who did everyone else's work in group projects and wrote their names on it like they had a say in the finished product. I'm not proud of it, but I did it. That being said, I have a tough time accepting service from others, a tendency I had to check quickly during the first few days of the service trip. Truthfully, I would have been okay doing all of my dishes, as well as everyone else's, cooking all the food, and performing service tasks alone. Rejecting help is something I've gotten really good at. However, what I began to realize was that this rejection of other people's service came more from a place of selfish independence than a desire to truly help other people. I was unwilling to humble myself enough to accept what other people were graciously trying to give me. Service, in all areas of life, isn't just about constantly giving. It's about developing yourself along with someone else's community, learning how to help others best, and humbly accepting service from others to keep that sense of self-righteousness in check.
4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Comfort is a dead zone for personal growth. If life is easy, if you're not encountering situations that make you think, if you're not confronting challenges, chances are you're static, meaning you're not developing personally. During my trip to Virginia, I was highly uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I was thrilled to be there, but I was also way out of my comfort zone. I had no experience doing intense outdoor work, gardening, building houses, or taking part in deep discussions about pressing social issues with really intelligent people. Yet I did it all. Yeah, it scared me. Yes, I felt incompetent at times. But I walked away with a whole new perspective on service, a new love for people, and a feeling of victory over the challenges we conquered as a group. It hurt sometimes (especially when we were running on four hours of sleep and sheer willpower), but that's just part of growing pains.
5. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you.
This is surprisingly one of my biggest takeaways from the entire service experience. I can honestly say that I have never been surrounded with people who treated me better than the people on my trip did. The church that housed us provided more than enough and asked for nothing in return. The organizations we served welcomed us, expressed gratitude, and showed us that our service was not ever in vain, but instead helped them help others. My group members had a heart for service. They sang, danced, and laughed with me. They accepted each other as they were. They acted in love constantly, doing little things to help each other out before anyone had to ask. They were (and are) humble, kind, outgoing, generous, and brought out those qualities in me. I say all that to say this: service, at its core, is about loving people well, and in order to accomplish this, you need to surround yourself with people who love you! More than that, you deserve to surround yourself with people who love you. People who others invest in have more to invest in others - it's a beautiful, perpetual cycle. Find a community of uplifting people, invest in each other, and - I know it's cliché, but - go out and make the world a better place.