This post is by Brendan Murray, a reporter for the Long Island Herald who is a focus in the 2014 documentary H.O.P.E. Was Here, which follows Brendan and his former college classmates as they volunteer during a 2012 service trip to Lima, Peru.
When I returned from my H.O.P.E. alternative spring break trip in 2012, everyone I knew asked me the same two questions: “What did you do?” and “Why did you go?”
The questions are rational and obvious, and seem simple enough to answer, but after returning, I couldn’t seem to find an easy way to answer either one.
When asked my motivation in the months leading up to the trip, my answer could have been recorded and played back. I said the same thing every time. I said I wanted to go because I was born into a life of immense privilege, and wanted to try to give back.
When asked what I was doing, I said I was going to help school children and people with developmental disabilities in one of the poorest areas of Peru -- a community in Lima called Canto Grande.
When I returned, however, I could not honestly say that I had fulfilled either statement goal. Despite having helped assemble dozens of wheel chairs and spending hours talking to Peruvians such as Johnny, the security guard at our housing center, I didn’t feel as though I had helped them in any way.
In fact, I felt quite the opposite: that we had contributed little if any true help to these people, yet we took so much. I had used their time and resources, yet didn’t feel as if any meaningful change had been made. It felt almost as if I had stolen from them.
And I had no plans to commit to real change after the trip, either. I enjoyed my time there and felt as though I learned a lot, but knew that I would not be returning to Peru for an extended period in an effort to truly making a lasting difference. Doing so would have a hugely negative impact on my career path, and I was not willing, and still am not, to do anything that would have such a large negative impact on my chances of making it in the fast-paced and competitive field of journalism.
As a result, I don’t feel as though I left a mark on Peru, or Canto Grande, positive or negative.
Brendan approaches a Peruvian school boy in H.O.P.E. Was Here (2014).
So why do we go? Why would I still recommend the trip, or trips like it, to friends and family after feeling so disenchanted with the result? This question ate at me for some time, and for a while I stopped endorsing the trips, and instead spun confusing tales of internal conflict.
Now, however, I’m back to endorsing them, and I am glad that I went.
I still feel conflicted about them, because of the central truth of trips like this: those who visit these countries under the guise of volunteering inevitably take more home with them than they leave there.
On my trip I learned a huge amount about myself, more than I could succinctly sum up here, and I would not trade that new found self-awareness for any time on a spring break trip to a warm and sunny locale.
My trip taught me honesty. It taught me to be honest with myself about what I was doing, and whether I was doing more harm than good, both on these trips, and in day-to-day life. It forced me to be honest about my intentions, and even helped me to find out what those intentions are. It taught me to be honest with others when describing something, and it taught me to allow for confusion, conflict, and difficult answers, even when I am trying to describe an experience I view as positive.
Most importantly, it taught me what one of my favorite authors had been trying to teach me for years: the truth resists simplicity. Nothing is ever black and white, and every good event has negative consequences, and vice-versa.
Those lessons have helped immensely, both personally, as I moved through the huge transition of college student to semi-functional adult, and professionally, as my one job as a journalist is to be honest and tell the truth.
I’m so thankful for those lessons. I don’t think I would be as good at my job without that trip.
So yes, to anyone considering a service trip, please go. But don’t go to assuage your guilt, and don’t go in some vein attempt to “give back” as I did. Odds are you won’t.
Instead, go to learn. Go to find out about yourself, and find out a small amount of what life is like in an area so different than ours. Go to learn how to be truly honest, both with yourself, and with others.
Be selfish, and take all that you can back with you. That is the best way to accomplish the mission of these trips -- to have a positive impact on the world around you. You will not change a poor area by spending a week without your cell phone and building a house or volunteering in a medical clinic.
But you will change yourself. That is the gift that these trips give.