The following essay was written by VISIONS alumna Claire Hortens, who reflected on her experience in Ecuador (a now-retired program location) and later used the essay as part of her college application process. We are re-publishing this essay because it’s a wonderful example of how students can use their VISIONS teenage volunteering experience to write unique, stand-out essays that go beyond the more general topic of, “My summer volunteer experience.”
By Claire Hortens

You cut the giant leaf from the tree like this: swift and strong, lifting your machete up above your head and then down on the stem, clean cut. Only choose the ones with yellow on the bottom; they are the ones ripe for cutting.

When you fold them, first split them down the center with the edge of your hand, and then bend them like this: break the right side away from the left and twist it like dough, fold it over the other. Stack the folded leaves along the road and wait until they dry and turn black. You need two thousand to thatch the roof.

Last summer I met a man in Ecuador who taught me all this, except without words. Just with a gentle patience and a wide smile that lasted all day. He asked me how to say, “vamos” in English, and I taught him: “let’s go.” He never asked me how to say “let’s hurry,” and he never asked me the time. I asked him a thousand times how to fold giant palm leaves, and with boundless patience he taught me. He taught me how to be patient.

His calm was never crowded, and it never changed. Every time I asked him to show me again, every time I held out another mangled weaving of green stretch and stem, his eyes were new. His brown, unbreakable hands paused after every step of folding, waiting for mine to follow. He would
smile a
new smile.

Beside him, I was standing in his goodness; I was reaching into it, touching it with my fingers, with my heart. I felt like whoever stood there in his patience was made kind by a palpable light in which he walked. And I, a girl who was discovering her true self through this experience, who didn’t share his language, understood him.

His name is Manuel Calazacón. He is a Tsachila Indian. He moves slowly and with purpose—not unyielding—solid, yet delicate. Elegant. He made me want to walk slowly, to wait longer, to learn more. I put up a massive roof in Ecuador. I split the bamboo, and I folded the leaves. I dug the holes, and I thatched the roof.

I met a man named Manuel who taught me how, who trusted my hands and my mistakes, who smiled at them, a man who waited for me. And in Manuel’s patience, unlike any I had known, I found my own.

VISIONS in The New York Times