30 years ago, I took a trip that changed my life. I was an undergraduate at Boston College, doing the things that any undergraduate does. A couple of friends of mine had done some volunteer work in Kentucky and West Virginia, deep in the heart of the Appalachian mountains and, as another trip was coming together, they encouraged me to go.
We worked alongside the locals, doing manual labor; building and repairing houses, putting shingles on roofs, and handing out food supplies to those who needed them. We did, in essence, whatever was needed. Growing up as I did, in the middle class suburbs of central New Jersey, I had never witnessed such poverty; living conditions I could barely comprehend; single room houses, leaky roofs, drafty walls and often, no indoor plumbing.
Traveling to this corner of the world was an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone. It was a chance to make a difference in the lives of others. A chance to be other centered. A chance to give back, just a little.
We spent a week there, our college "Spring Break". In the evenings, we gathered at individual homes, sharing meals that were cooked for us by these wonderful folks who had, it seemed, so little. Their generosity was astounding to me. They opened their homes and their hearts to us, this rag tag group of privileged college students, and they touched our hearts in ways we had never imagined. Each evening, as the sun would set, we laughed, sang songs and shared stories. Despite the differences between us, we were very much the same.
“Folks is folks,” one of the men said to us one evening. It became our motto.
It was an experience that has stayed with me, long into adulthood. In fact, it was one of the pivotal experiences that guided my pursuing a career in social work.
Last summer my friend Judy took a group of her students on a similar journey. As she told me about their experiences, her voice electric with enthusiasm, the memories of the trip I took, some 30 years ago, came flooding back. I knew I had to go.
This spring I am taking a group of high school students to El Salvador with Seeds of Learning, a non-profit organization based in Sonoma, California. I'm mentoring two young men in their Senior Service Project, a comprehensive service project that caps four years of service-based learning. There are 26 of us in all, 26 folks who will spend 7 days working alongside community members, mixing cement, laying bricks and building friendships as we participate in building a school together. We'll expand our understanding of our two cultures, learn about another part of the world, and help to create opportunities for the local youth of El Salvador through supporting education. And along the way, lives will change.
We are hoping to raise as much money as possible to offset the cost of the trip. It’s a daunting task. Hoping for the generosity of friends and family, I sent out my fundraising letters. The cost is $2000.00 per person, money that will go towards supporting the development and enhancement of educational opportunities for the youth of El Salvador. There’ll no doubt be a pasta feed and a car wash or two and the generosity of a lot of people who love us.
26 people who will travel to El Salvador, to a country and a people very different from our own. To work side by side sharing stories and laughter, as we build a place where children can learn.
26 people who will work to make a difference in the lives of others and who will no doubt learn the lesson that I learned all those years ago. No matter where you go, “folks is folks”.