Reflections from Teen Volunteer on VISIONS Peru

Kelsey Freeman, an eleventh grade student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, CO was in Peru summer 2011 with us as a youth volunteer.  Kelsey shared this essay about how her Peru community service program has influenced her life since returning home.

My heart swelled and a feeling of love permeated my entire body. I gripped Esebastian’s coarse hand, while my other arm extended to Raul’s tiny fingers; barely big enough to grasp my hand. I wanted to frame this moment, for soon I would be on a plane home. When it was time to say goodbye, Esebastian turned towards me, clasping both my hands in his palms. He smiled that toothless grin that had become so familiar to me over the summer. “No te vayas o voy a llorar” (Don’t go or I’m going to cry), he said, and suddenly that smile faded. “Vas a quedarse a dentro de mi corazon” (you’ll stay in my heart). I met his gaze. “Igualamente. Te amo” (It’s the same for me. I love you), was all I could manage.

When I left Peru after working in a remote village, I expected to be sad that the experience had ended, but instead I just felt lucky. As I peered out of the bus at the mountains that had been my home, I couldn’t help but smile. I had built a connection with a new community.  An experience of profound service had been a dream of mine, and, finally, I had made it a reality. I spent my summer building a one-room school in a village tucked in the Peruvian Andes. On my plane ride to Peru, on June 29, 2011, I wrote this in my journal:

I don’t know what this goal looks like exactly, but it’s called forming connections. It means living out that school presentation I gave on empathy and forming ties with people across the world. Creating those connections is what will extend my individual network of empathy, and only then will I be motivated to devote my life to somehow making a difference in the world. There’s a picture on my bulletin board at home and it says `Be Someone.’ I feel like I’ve gotten a little caught up in my busy life and forgotten what it means to care. I recognize that this is a process; I first had to know and improve myself. Ultimately I see this trip as a step towards moving out into the world.

The trip was more than I could have hoped for, and “forming connections” didn’t happen the way I expected. I thought that creating these ties would begin with sympathy. I assumed I would feel bad for the people of Urquillos and therefore want to help them. However, after working day after day alongside these Peruvians, whether mixing cement, molding adobe bricks, stripping logs, or hauling rocks up the hill with them, I began to have the utmost respect for them.

I started to feel this overwhelming sense of love for Esebascion, my host “grandfather” who worked harder than most people I’ve ever met; Emeralda, the little girl who naturally gravitated to my lap; Nico, the coordinator for the project and the nicest, most accepting man; and every other person in Urquillos. Love became the motivation for my work, and only then did I truly understand what it meant to form connections with people across the world.

I wasn’t exactly sure how my experience in Peru would translate to my life in Colorado, but I knew that it marked the transition between focusing on self-improvement and shifting my perspective towards others. When I returned home, I found that my desire for connections and motivation to help others in Peru stayed with me.  As Student Body President, I am on a committee that disciplines probationary offenses committed by my peers. During my early high school years, it never fazed me when a student was suspended. However, just last week as I listened to a freshmen describe why he wanted to stay at CRMS, I felt a new sense of personal responsibility. In my journal, October 4, 2011, I wrote:

I am inextricably enmeshed in this school now; it is truly a part of me, and I am truly a part of it. Somewhere along the way, I have grown to care about the student body such that their problems become my own. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s exactly like in Peru: just as I set out on a service project because I wanted that experience, I set out to become a leader…. because I wanted this leadership experience. In Peru I met a people and a culture, and along the way my motivation for working was no longer about me–it was about them. That’s what I think is happening here. I’m entering into the realm of something bigger than myself.

I think I’m going to love this new place that I’m entering, and what I said to each person in Urquillos is true: “Voy a recordarla por siempre” (I’m going to remember it forever).

VISIONS in The New York Times