When Helping Helps – coincidence vs opportunities


Just as I was writing the last few posts about “When Helping Hurts”, I received a book from my library requests. “Wide-Open World” details the story of John Marshall, his wife and 2 teenage children as they take 6 months to participate in service trips thruout the world. These trips change each of them, both in small and large ways, and foster a difference in the relationship with their children. Reading this book while on a vacation with 3 teenage children in a remote area of the southwestern US may have been a coincidence, but I like to think of coincidences as opportunities. What would it be like to stretch this week of togetherness in a RV to 6 months with all of us sleeping in one room, eating every meal together and cooperating to serve others in a foreign country with primitive living conditions?

As I am sure the author would relate, there are good moments and not so good moments to every story, whether one week or 6 months. Becoming unplugged can create initial anxiety, both for adults and teens. Adults remember a time when immediate feedback thru social media was absent; teens have had this outlet most of their lives. The majority of teens haven’t had the experience of making a difference in someone’s life that is less privileged than themselves. Teaching English in a foreign land, caring for abandoned animals in a nature preserve, weeding out invasive plants are only a few of the examples cited in the book. Some of these helping moments describe where I want to be now, others where I never hope to be. This was summed up by a father I overheard this week as his kids were complaining about some minor inconvenience of their vacation. “Some of the best memories of vacations and the memories you continue to talk about in the future involved bad meals, getting lost and poor picks for tourist stops.” Wall Drug in South Dakota invokes 2/3 of these statements for me. In reference to helping others, sometimes the moments that make the largest impression in the future are the situations that create the most discomfort in the present.

All of this relates back to the end of my post on the teenage version of When Helping Hurts. Volunteering with our kids, A Day of Service, can help to create memories and change our relationship with our kids, if only for a day. They become unplugged (leave the phones at home!), realize that they can make a difference in a moment of someone’s life, and create great stories that may live in infamy.

The second coincidence was an op ed piece Nicholas Kristof (New York Times journalist and author) about gap years of service used for life direction before or during  college. The young woman’s volunteer experiences serving citizens of Uganda, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Honduras, should be more routinely considered for many of American youth.  As stated in the editorial, challenging yourself both physically and mentally outside of a school setting, produces the knowledge of what you need to succeed in school and your life after that. As in the afterword to “Wide-Open World”, options for travel and service can be available to most if you are willing to plan and budget.

Having started my journey of medical mission work/service 10 years ago, I can relate to the statement that I have not changed the world, but the world has definitely changed me. Providing service to others gives me a new appreciation for my daily life and family, makes the world a smaller place and has introduced me to a whole new world of interesting volunteers. Sharing this with my children will be the next part of my journey.

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