Thirteen eighth graders traveled to Puerto Rico last spring to do service work and came back realizing that they may have been the true beneficiaries of the endeavor.
Okay, so I can go ahead and write this the easy way. I can tell you how 13 eighth graders chose to give up their spring break vacation and went with Ms. Munz to Puerto Rico to do service work. I can tell you that over the course of ten days, while their classmates were relaxing, these guys put in full days of manual labor, mixing concrete and pouring it into rebar-reinforced columns and load bearing beams. I could recount how they helped build a greenhouse for a rainforest preservation project or how they cleared debris still leftover in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Maybe you’d like to hear about setting up bucket brigades to move concrete and building materials to crumbling homes in an impoverished barrio, or helping to build a walkway designed to redirect water away from someone’s house that floods during the rainy seasons? I can tell you about all that, and you’d be as proud of these eighth graders as I am. I might even go a little further and talk about supporting the School’s Mission of educating compassionate, empathetic young men who are called to serve others. But that would be easy and neglect the heart of the experience.
So, I will start again. Here goes. A group of our eighth graders headed to the Caribbean for spring break; not to lounge on the beach, sip virgin piña coladas, and work on their tans. They returned to the communities of Villa Del Rio and Las Casas de la Selva, and continued the work of last year’s class, building hurricane resistant housing and cleaning up messes still left over from Hurricane Maria. As with many service trips, the boys went in with the mindset of helping those in need and pitching in to help those who are struggling and may be less fortunate than themselves. But they came out realizing that they may have been the true beneficiaries of the endeavor.
While the labor in the heat was physically difficult, much needed, and very appreciated, it was our boys who received maybe even more than they gave. Talking about loading and moving wheelbarrows full of rocks might give you a picture of what we did. But it doesn’t convey the lessons Maria taught the boys about gratitude as she welcomed us into her home for lunch everyday, a lunch she prepared. (If you’ve ever had to feed a 14-year-old boy, you know how hard that can be. Now multiply that by 13, and you’ll get the sense of her task.) A story about pouring cement into wooden forms when it’s 90 degrees and 95% humidity might illustrate how gruelling the work was. But it doesn’t say anything about the empathy the boys discovered when Suri cried as she hugged goodbye to the boys who helped rebuild the support columns in her house. Writing about how William and Angel, two community leaders, taught the boys how hand-mix concrete might give you a glimpse into how we spent our days. But it doesn’t express the camaraderie and friendship they shared with the boys as they all worked and laughed side by side even though language barriers made talking difficult. Sure, our boys did some serious work and impacted the communities in a major way, but they took away so much more.
But it wasn’t just the newfound connections that enriched the experience. Each day as classmates, the group became tighter. When one guy needed a break, another stepped in for him. When someone skinned a knee or needed a hand with something, another was there to lighten the load. Boys who, over the course of the past nine years, may have never been on the same team or travelled in the same circles were developing bonds with each other, discovering qualities they didn’t know about the others, and building friendships they might have otherwise missed. During times of reflection, so many of the group expressed how glad they were for the opportunity to connect with their classmates before graduation and how nice it was to see them in a new place, a new context, and a new light.
That’s the thing about true service, we often go in a little smug, arrogant, and self-righteousness like we’re going to go help someone else, but we often forget how we are actually the ones who get the most out of the experience in the form of personal growth and connections—how much we get back from those we think we’re helping. The work, though important in and of itself, becomes a conduit to a much richer experience. Well, that’s what happened for a group of our students this past April. They went to help others but wound up helping themselves and are now more apt to help others again. It’s like a cycle that will continue. One boy summed it up this way, “When you travel, it’s like you’re on the outside looking in. I really liked this trip. I like the view better from the inside looking out.” Didn’t someone once say that it is in giving that we receive or something like that?