"If you have to leave, why did you bother coming in the first place?"
As I've done every March for the past four years, I participated as a Team Leader in United Way's Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in the metro Washington D.C. area. ASB is a great opportunity for college students who choose to spend their spring breaks volunteering in communities across the country. Since 2006, nearly 2,000 students have participated in ASB, volunteering over 64,000 hours of service.
For part of this year's ASB service, my group got to work at an after-school program for at-risk kids, ages 5-11, to help them with their homework. Our team noticed that many of the older kids struggled with basic reading and math concepts, even though they are at an age when fundamentals should be well established. We were only at Beacon House for four short days, but after working hard with the kids, many of us got attached to our new friends.
One of the participants in my group, Shelina, formed a particularly close bond with an 11-year-old girl who, for privacy reasons, I will call Zee. At the beginning of the week, Zee told Shelina that she wanted to be a hairdresser when she grows up. After observing the girl's clear talent at math and science throughout the week, Shelina encouraged her to think about other careers that would make use of her skills. By the end of the week, inspired by Shelina's support, Zee began to consider the possibilities of being a math teacher or a fashion designer.
On Thursday, as they hugged goodbye, Zee had a particularly hard time letting go of Shelina, both figuratively and literally. As Shelina detangled herself from her, Zee wailed, "Why do you have to leave?"
"I live in New Jersey, and I have to go back," replied Shelina.
"WHYYY?" countered Zee.
"I have to go back to school, " Shelina replied patiently.
Zee pouted, then shot back, "If you have to leave, then why did you bother coming in the first place?"
Shelina had no response.
It's a pretty good question, right? Every year, as ASB comes to a close, students tell us about how much they've learned, how they loved helping people, and how they've made great new friends. From the students' perspective, there are many compelling reasons for coming to Alternative Spring Break.
But what are the costs involved for the community members? Shelina was heartbroken when she had to leave Zee, especially because Zee had shared that her parents were divorced and didn't spend much time with her. Shelina was worried she had done more harm than good by coming into Zee's life and leaving it just as abruptly. In our reflection session at the end of the last day, she wondered out loud to the group, "Even if I was able to help Zee by being a role model and helping her with her homework, was it really worth it?"
Shelina's question highlights an important part of the service dynamic and embodies one of the core values of the Public Allies program I help manage at the ASU Lodestar Center: having integrity about the work that we come into communities to do. If we say we really care about strengthening our communities and making them better places to live, work and play, then we, like Shelina, have to ask ourselves the hard questions about why and how we serve. In this case, while there are no easy answers to Shelina's question, we might learn from her experience and strive to be more thoughtful about our work in the world.