I finally understand why they call it service learning instead of just service.
Food and Friends is an organization in Washington, DC that feeds specialized, nutritious meals and groceries to people living with life-challenging illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and diabetes. The services are free of charge.
First thought? I have to be up with the roosters. Second thought? Wait, there’s a shuttle?
This place is impressive. Every aspect of this organization from the punctuality of the staff, to the accessibility of transportation, to everyday tasks works better than clockwork.
At first the tasks appeared routine and gave me as much of a rush as any assembly line could. Then I looked up and began reading all of the thank you letters written and illustrated by children and the children of individuals who rely on the service Food and Friends provide. Blown up pictures of chefs who dedicated their time to cooking massive amounts of specialized food, volunteers working hard day in and day out and people actually receiving the food, hung from the ceiling.
My initial feeling was ashamed. I was entirely too focused on getting the “experience” that I was missing the impact of what I was doing. Just because I’m not listening to the testimonials of the people we are affecting doesn’t mean they don’t exist. After all seeing isn’t always believing right?
The next place of service learning I found in the urban Southeast of DC at a place called Cornerstone School. This day I was prepared with a real understanding of true service and a mindset to make a difference no matter how mundane the tasks may be.
But things never go according to plan—a lesson I keep forgetting along with the lesson that things aren’t always what they seem. These clichés are sadly the best way to convey what I gathered from my time at Cornerstone.
Pumped and metro card in hand we boarded the bus. On our way off the bus an unfortunate misstep caused my shoe to ripe clean apart rendering it impossible to wear functionally.
I figured I would get sent home. This had to violate some sort of health code and I’m sure they didn’t want the children around me and my nude feet. However, I was totally off and the staff was pleased to have me regardless.
I was having a great time snapping photographs of the children and I felt like I was being productive since it would help with recruiting materials and the website. Unfortunately this feeling did not last long.
It was like I was stuck in a bad sitcom and was having one of those embarrassing flashbacks to middle school. Kids were making fun of me for being shoeless; they were giving me funny looks and even whispering and pointing. One teacher laughed at me and referred to me as the barefoot photographer the rest of the day.
All in all it was a great experience. Shortly after leaving the school however it dawned on me that the service learning was not over.
As I hopped from bus to bus barefoot I started to get strange looks, laughs and grossed out expressions from people on the bus. These weren’t children or administrators poking fun. These were everyday people looking at something different they couldn’t explain, making a judgment and then acting on it.
It was so mean!
But then I thought, “How many times have I cringed as someone who had torn clothes or funky hair walked past me?”
I wondered if this is how they felt. You never know what someone has been through that day. We can make judgments by appearances but we will never know unless we ask.
On that crowded bus one man stopped and said to me in my moment of defeat, “Girl, what happened to yo’r shoes and where is you goin’?” Relieved, I told him my story and as he laughed I saw faces of understanding from people next to us who had previously looked at me like a leper.
I think I had been missing the point of the learning in service learning. I anticipate that everyone can take a moment to look back at a not-so-pleasant service learning experience and find the good in it like I did.
Hopefully it won’t cost you a pair of shoes to get it.