Today I was helping a client find a summer community service program. We discussed many issues but the mom’s first instinct was to question what her daughter could bring to the project given that she has no experience in construction or working with children. Would she, in fact, be more of a burden to the community? The question of who really benefitted from these kinds of actions was raised. Our conversation was a good one and I think could give families something to consider when choosing a community service program.
I think it is better to view teen summer community service programs more as “voluntourism”. This means that the sole purpose of the experience is not to offer your service but more a combination of service, cultural exposure, and travel. It is an age-appropriate way to start to “giveback”. Embedded in the service is the opportunity for cross-cultural sharing of ideas, the ability to make observations about other cultures, begin to see how a simple act can make a difference, and learn the importance of giving back.
In all honesty I think participants in community service programs receive more than they give. My daughter has done many service programs and each time has gained new perspectives. Additionally she has made long lasting friendships. In January she was in the Caribbean. She decided that she wanted to return to the island of Dominica – she volunteered there over 15 years ago. While on the street, someone yelled her name. She turned around perplexed….no one knew her here. Amazingly it was a young woman from the village who she had not seen since she was last on the island! After all these years she still recognized her. They had corresponded for about a year or so and then communication stopped. Still, the reunion was so meaningful to both my daughter and her friend. They shared stories and reminisced. They talked about family and “old times”. Clearly an important connection was made. A friendship was established and barriers crossed. This woman took my daughter to the area where she had volunteered and some of their efforts were still being appreciated. The physical evidence of her service on the island remained but even more importantly so did the connections.