“Quieres jugar?” is the question I ask every day to the kids that pass me by in the hallways of Teletón, a rehabilitation center for children with motor disabilities. In my public health classes, I learned the importance of working on a community level: addressing local problems chosen by community members and building community capacity. But by engaging in service-learning, I have learned so much more.
1. How to serve as part of a community
The problem with many international service projects is that they are international service rather than community service. They may address a local problem, but that “problem” is decided by outsiders rather than by the community. The main goals of this organization are physical rehabilitation as well as mental health support, self-esteem improvement, and social inclusion. I cannot stress enough the importance of working within a community organization. It assures that you are working on priorities chosen by the community to serve the community, and after seeing how many children cross those halls every day, I can’t imagine what they would do without it.
2. What it takes to build a stronger community
My favorite aspect of my service is that I work for an organization with the goal of a stronger community. Before my service, I felt like I was just a foreign student, trying to improve my language skills and get by without being noticed. Now, I still am obviously a foreigner, and I have talked to many volunteers, parents, and kids about my background and my struggles with learning Spanish. However, by serving this community, I have become a part of it. By working with other volunteers, I learn about their lives and connect to other people my age. Alongside them, we serve the goal of being more than just a rehabilitation center, but a welcoming place of acceptance and self-improvement. Teletón gives kids the chance to face their disabilities, feel better about themselves, and have the chance to just be kids.
3. What it means to be “the change you wish to see in the world”
Here I am one cog in the machine of Teletón, but that is an important staple of service. I think that a lot of people expect to change the world through their service, and they want to be a quick solution to a big problem. But there aren’t quick solutions to big social problems, like in my case, children’s self-esteem or social inclusion. But every day I am part of the solution in at least a couple of lives. Even if I am gushing over how a squishy toy, helping a child make their dreamcatcher and sparking conversation, or asking some kids to share their toys and make a game together; I am giving tired parents a break, connecting with kids, and giving them a chance to just play.
4. How to laugh at me!
My service is about more than simply assisting with art projects and providing toys. It’s about making car crash noises, animal sounds, and funny faces to make kids laugh. It’s about admitting that I don’t know the name of many toys in Spanish and asking kids to explain them to me. It’s about making the children and the families of my organization have a better day and feel a little bit better about themselves, and sometimes that means making a fool of myself. But I don’t mind if it gets a smile.