As the days until my departure dwindled, I grew increasingly downcast about the prospect of leaving my climate-controlled home and relocating to an impoverished Caribbean island. Contemplating manual labor in a mosquito-infested sauna had as much appeal as filling out college applications. This negative outlook carried over to affect me wholeheartedly in the opening activities, and I distanced myself from the rest of my peers.   

I do not really know how or why, but by the second day my beliefs about the entire experience had gone through a complete 180-degree change. I found myself enjoying the work we were doing, and, even more, the company of our new acquaintances. The work was manual labor such as pouring concrete, sanding, and scraping paint… It was the local people’s reactions that made it so worthwhile. Everywhere we went, the people of the island were so kind and caring, even though we were strangers to them. They accepted us into their homes and places of work, even though we came from an entirely different way of life.

I participated in activities such as community dances, pickup basketball games, and sampling the Caribbean version of barbeque. I got to know people such as Mike, a local farmer whose forefathers had been ex-slaves; Will, the scuba master from England who survived the bends; and Huggy Dave, who overcame his learning disabilities and was now helping others like himself to succeed. I came to see life differently through their eyes. I realized that they could lead happy, productive, and successful lives in a completely different environment from the one from which I came–– suburbia, USA. The locals made the most of the scarce resources that they had available. Often times they made due without running water and the uncertain sporadic availability of electricity.

I have been doing community service locally throughout my high school years, but there is no comparison to my time in Tortola with tutoring my high school peers or helping out at the local senior citizen home. By living in the community that I was serving, I witnessed firsthand the positive impact of our labors. Of course, our primary goal was to improve the…physical facilities…by building an information kiosk or cleaning up Michael’s farmland. However, the direct benefits went way beyond walls and tilled soil. By turning the kiosk into a store and planting the newly readied fields the residents and our group an active role in bettering lives. I hoped that our enthusiasm would be contagious and would spark a desire for further positive changes.

I know for a fact that my participation in this program has had this effect on me. My sojourn to Tortola literally slapped me across the face and forced me to open my eyes to the world. My convictions are that I will go through life with an open mind, accept people for what they are, and not make preconceived judgments about people of whom I have no knowledge. Additionally, I should not be dissuaded from trying new things.

I put this philosophy to the test when I was given the opportunity by Will, the scuba guy, to learn how to scuba dive. I had my doubts about whether or not I could actually go through with it. As I contemplated my options, I realized that I might never have this opportunity again. So I put my fear aside, put my trust in my new friend, and literally jumped right in!

Being a part of a VISIONS service program was one of the most influential and rewarding opportunities of my entire life. So many new experiences lie ahead of me thanks to my new view of the world. I cannot wait to meet and help new people who I previously would not have even attempted to get to know. Who would think that a tiny island that was originally so foreign to me has been the key to unlocking a new world and way of looking at life?

VISIONS in The New York Times