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Serving as community, not just "helping" it

By Luna Olavarria Gallegos

A few months ago, when I began to think about my plans for Spring Break, I thought back to my first-year seminar and the Fall semester book discussion, which both sparked countless conversations about humanitarian aid, volunteerism, and the idea of “helping others.”

Last semester, the Park Scholar program focused heavily on the idea of philanthropy and what it means to give back. This made me look back on my service trip to Ecuador in 2012 through a national youth-empowerment organization. While I appreciate the spirit of community and supporting it in a positive way, I have recently questioned more about what it meant for me to be in Ecuador for a summer. I wonder if by traveling to Ecuador for the vague purpose of “service” I had done more to reinforce the idea of Western superiority and privilege structures than to help the community develop.

Two weeks ago, I made a very spontaneous plan and bought a ticket to Quito for Spring Break. As I look back on the summer of 2012, spending cool mornings milking cows with my host-grandmother and afternoons climbing trees with children from the community, I always remember that that experience was so important to me — not because of whatever “community service project” I executed while in the community, but because of the true bonds I made with the people.

As I reflected on how much these real human connections meant to me, I realized that the people in this community in Ecuador meant so much more to me than just a service project. Their legacy in my mind transcended the shallow relationship of host siblings and mothers and fathers. They became some of my closest friends, the communication, even after years of not seeing them, has remained intact and strong.

I decided to return to Ecuador this Spring Break to honor those friendships that truly helped shaped who I am today as an active global citizen, but also just as a human being. As I prepare to leave next weekend, I am finding in myself a deeper understanding and feeling of being grounded.

This semester has been long and cold, and right now I don’t think there is anywhere else I would like to be than with my second community on a warm and rainy mountain slope. As an impulsive purchase transformed into a greater existential reflection, I realize how crucial it is to always make time for human connections that bring positivity to allow us to learn and grow together.



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