Service learning while abroad often comes with certain expectations and is intertwined with volunteerism, service trips, and community service. However, service learning is meant to be different, with a focus on community based learning and reflection. It is based on observing a community’s assets and needs and figuring out where a service learner fits into that community ecosystem.
Service learners may have initial expectations that do not always transpire, like solving all of an organization’s needs, fundraising an exuberant amount of money, or making groundbreaking discoveries. Sometimes it’s small, incremental progress and changes that are made. Sometimes it’s planning a baking activity for thirty-one girls and realizing that at an altitude of 11,200 feet, recipes geared toward sea-level baking do not apply. Sometimes it’s realizing your Spanish language classes did not cover all the baking vocabulary you wish it had. Sometimes, it’s learning to be flexible, how to think on your feet, and how to make chocolate chip oatmeal cookies still taste great.
While in Cusco, I serve at San Judas Chico, a home for high-risk girls age four to seventeen. The organization is government run, has two full-time employees, and several “moms” who watch the girls on part-time shifts. The girls are often left to find ways to entertain themselves. As a service learner, I began to observe these things and saw that I could make a positive impact by designing activities for the girls that would be engaging, hands on, and creative. Another volunteer and I asked around and listened to the girls. The general consensus: Cooking. Sounds. Awesome.
On the cab ride to service I read over the chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe one more time to make sure we had all the ingredients. Check. Made sure we had enough for all the girls. Check. I began to review the baking instructions and came across the small print: directions are good for up to 3,000 feet. No check. Cusco sits at a perch of 11,200 feet, and with no internet connection to explain the chemistry of baking at high altitudes, we opened the door to San Judas Chico and were greeted by girls excited for the promised baking activity.
We set out the ingredients, went over the recipe with the girls, and designated roles for each new baker. Everyone rolled up their sleeves, dug their hands in, and proudly showed off their uniquely rolled dough before placing it on the greased cookie sheet. The next phase was to try to explain to one of the Moms how the recipe was not made for the altitude. We quickly learned that the Mom has spent her whole life in Cusco at such an altitude, and the message was lost in translation. The cookies were popped into the oven and the girl’s crowded around to watch what was supposed to turn into the first batch of twelve cookies.
The other volunteer and I watched the baking progress and saw what is actually going to form: one giant thin cookie. We explained that they are actually going to be thin cookie crisps! This sounded great to the girls and in fifteen minutes we pulled them out, sliced up the large thin cookie, and presented the girls with their own handmade chocolate chip oatmeal thin cookie crisps. The smiles, the messy chocolate cheeks, and the begging for more makes it seem like the altitude and language barrier didn’t exist at all, just the aroma of freshly baked thin cookie crisps.
The world awaits…discover it.