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The definition of "meaningful service" has traditionally been supplied by the deliverers of service. But what if we took the time to attempt to understand it from the perspective of the recipients?
VolunTourism - Re-Defiining "Meaningful Service"
“‘Don’t be sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Be sorry for the Indians. You know nothing and they must teach you…’” (From I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven)
I first met Felicita (Chata) Castañeda 4 years ago. She is a founding member of a women’s beekeeping cooperative in Mexicali, Mexico. I took an interest in their work because it had been initiated, not as an income-generator, but as a means to improve the nutrition of their children. (As some of you may know, the Mexican population, particularly in the U.S./Mexico Border Region, has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of residents being diagnosed with Type II Diabetes.)
After much thought, it was determined that we could enlist the help of leisure and business travel groups in assembling beehives. Once completed, these hives would be offered to the women as part of a micro-loan program and be put into service at their discretion with sales of products – honey, beeswax, bee pollen, etc, - providing capital to pay off the loans.
Following one of these group activities, Chata, who had been in attendance and had related the history of the cooperative and some of the details of beekeeping came forward and said something that I will never forget: “I just can’t understand; why are these people helping us? They are not members of our family.”
What was Chata really saying in these words? Is the meaningful nature of service rooted simply in the completion of the task according to the dictates of fulfilling a need? From Chata’s comments, I suggest that the “need” to be addressed may not have had anything to do with assembling beehives at all. The need may have been something far deeper. Would such a need be discovered in a needs assessment, or an asset-based community development approach? I would argue that it would not.
For decades, the providers of service have defined what they have referred to as “meaningful service.” An example of a discussion on this subject appears in the following words from a handout published for educators by the Indiana Department of Education entitled “Meaningful Service & Civic Engagement”:
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A critical aspect of meaningful service is to develop projects/programs which not only meet a community need, but clearly are connected to deep and meaningful learning and experiences… Projects/programs should reinforce that the communities and world in which we live are diverse and require each of our skills in order to thrive.
Although this may have been compiled for the benefit of K-12 students, I think each of us as “life-long students” can identify with the important elements presented here. But what is not included in the text is a definition of “meaningful service” supplied by the community residents and/or recipients of the service. Do we have any idea what is truly “meaningful service” in their minds?
In November 2006, I visited Louisiana and conducted a tour of the Greater New Orleans region and Lake Charles and its surrounding Parishes. Both areas were impacted by Hurricanes Katrina & Rita respectively and each is working diligently to rekindle its tourism sectors by sharing with the world that they are indeed “Open For Business.”
12th Night awaits YOU! Mardi Gras awaits YOU! Jazzfest awaits YOU! Creole and Cajun Cuisine await YOU! Louisiana’s Outback and Creole Nature Trail await YOU! By participating in these celebrations and visiting these locations is it possible that you are also providing “meaningful service”?
During our time in New Orleans we participated in a “Super Saturday” cleanup project at New Orleans City Park. Children, students and adults gathered to serve in the restoration of one of the city’s great tourist attractions – drawing nearly 14 million visitors annually, prior to Hurricane Katrina. Clearly, in my mind, I was serving to meet a community need; and thus, felt content in knowing that I was participating in “meaningful service.” While working alongside residents that day, I began to hear what has led me to consider redefining the term, however.
What I heard that day in New Orleans, and later in Lake Charles, were the untold stories of those who had lost – not property, not jobs, not physical or material substances necessarily – but something far greater, Trust. My service to them was not helping them cleanup a park, beloved by many and a landmark for most residents; my service to them was listening to what it feels like to be betrayed by Mother Nature and members of the human race. Pulling a weed out of the ground was not the community need I could meet that day or, likely, any other day for the folks who worked beside me. They needed to tell their stories, share their stories, and let the angst, disappointment, and grief flow. And what I sensed was inherently present in that sharing was the hope that one day they could trust again.
VolunTourism will open us to learning and experience beyond our imagination. What we define as “meaningful service” today, from our current perspective, will in the years to come expand to encompass a more intrinsic understanding of our world and our role as citizens and residents of that global community. “Meaningful service” will ultimately be assigned its definition from the viewpoint of the recipient, regardless of the task we may originally assume as VolunTourists or the economic impact we may deliver to the destination. Through our meaningful service that meets a true individual or community need, we will marvel at how that need was, all along, our own.
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