It was around 4:30am when I arrived at our college’s campus ministry building. There were 25 other well-to-do students congregating there with me. It was March 11th, 2007 and we were headed to Peru. That was the first day of our nine-day excursion to the impoverished community of Canto Grande, where we would spend the rest of our time immersed in the community, volunteering in an effort to know and to serve those who lived there.
As the week progressed, my expectations of completely changing the world—or even just this community—quickly dissipated as the “service” work we did seemed to fall short. We babysat and took pictures of cute children at a rehabilitation center. We painted a youth center and taught English classes at a local school. Although the trip was fulfilling and entertaining, I realized that I would not be able to check “change the lives of those plagued by poverty” off my naïve to-do list.
One night after work, I chose to step out of my comfort zone and initiated a conversation with a security guard named Jhonny at the youth center where we were staying. The conversation was basic. I asked questions about Peru in my broken Spanish and in return, misunderstood the man’s dumbed-down responses. That was when things started to change.
The rest of that week was a blur: a mix of painting, cleaning, tourism, and shenanigans with the rest of the students. Each night, however, I found myself talking to Jhonny. As our conversations grew deeper I learned about Jhonny’s family and upbringing as he shared stories about his life with me. Jhonny was married and had a teenage daughter. He lived in a house about 20 minutes from where we were staying and enjoyed things like going to the movies, dinner at the local fast food chicken place, and church on Sundays. Was this what life was like for someone living in poverty? My perception of being poor—no job, no home, no family—was beginning to change.
Day 9 came quickly and it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t anticipate any problems going home and getting back into my groove of gym/class/party, but as we packed our luggage a lump in my throat slowly started to grow. I thought nothing of it. I threw my bag over my shoulder, walked down the steps to the courtyard, and was headed toward the bus when Jhonny pulled me aside. He explained how happy he was to meet me and how thankful he was for our conversations. He placed a cross necklace around me and said,
“Here, Travis, this is a piece of me that you will always have with you, just as I will always carry a piece of you with me.”
I sobbed the entire ride to the airport and struggled to hold any semblance of composure as we boarded the plane and returned home. Something had clearly struck a chord in a way that I could not yet fully understand.
I returned home sad and frustrated, not because I didn’t change the world in one week, but because the world wasn’t through with changing me.
Prior to my trip to Peru I wasn’t sure if college was the path I really wanted to be on, let alone what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do. I even attempted to drop out… twice! Luckily, thanks to some tough love from great parents, I stuck it out long enough to get to Peru.
After Peru, my thoughts of dropping out were long gone. A week after being back, I marched into the campus ministry office and declared that I would not only be returning to Peru, but that I intended to do so as a student leader. Two weeks after that, I applied for and eventually accepted a position as a resident assistant. I wanted to help first-year students who felt the same way I did. I wanted to help them find something—a club, a sport, maybe an alternative spring break, maybe Peru—anything that would do for them what Peru did for me.
On my second trip down, we were given the task of cleaning and painting the enormous wall that surrounded the local school. At night, I had ample time to catch up with Jhonny, who was expecting the birth of his second child at any moment. One morning, Jhonny and I were talking about what he and his wife would name their new baby when I asked him to take pictures. He smiled and said that he didn’t have a camera. Thankfully, I had mine and that next morning when Minerva was born, he was able to capture it all with photos that to this day still hang on his living room walls. A few days after her birth, Jhonny returned the camera and was telling me about everything when he came right out and asked if I would consider being Minerva’s Godfather. I was speechless. A man I had met just a year ago was asking me to become a part of his and his family’s life forever. I had never felt more honored.
My third trip to Peru I met Minerva and the rest of Jhonny’s family for the first time. My fourth trip to Peru we celebrated Jhonny’s 40th birthday and Minerva spoke to me for the first time. Next March will mark my 13th trip to Peru and I look forward to seeing Minerva during her first year of school.
The debate over whether or not these types of short-term volunteer trips are beneficial is riddled with strong points on both sides. That said, I can guarantee that I would not be the person I am today were it not for the short-term volunteer trips I have participated in over the years. I also don’t believe I’m alone: I’ve seen students change majors, commit to year-long service programs, and live their lives differently as a result of these very experiences.
On a recent trip, Jhonny said it best: “The service you do at Yancana Huasy [rehabilitation center] and Fe y Alegía [local school] is important. However, it is the conversations that we have every night that really matter. Showing interest, listening, learning and appreciating one another are all truly acts of love and by doing these things we are sharing our love and our lives with one another. Again, the work you do here is magnificent, but everything you learn, see, do, and feel during this trip is what you must remember and share with others. Only with knowledge, friendship, and love can we begin to think and act as a global community, as brothers and sisters.”
What has been your experience with international volunteering? Post your stories below.
Travis Kumph is a co-founder of Friends New England, a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to educational and social development projects in Nicaragua and Peru. Travis published Peace of Me, a collection of reflections about volunteering abroad and the impact it can have on not just the communities being served, but on the volunteers themselves. His book is the inspiration for the feature documentary H.O.P.E. Was Here, to be released in 2014.