People that stop to read the Sierra Service Project newsletter, as a general rule, already understand the innumerable benefits of travel, foreign culture immersion, and volunteer work. But in case you’re one the few that decided to pick this copy up and aren’t fully convinced of SSP’s value, hopefully I can sell it to you.
My first SSP experience was in Big Sur, California. I went because some friends of mine were going and because my mom was convinced I would enjoy myself and that it would be a great life experience for me. And, as moms generally are, she was absolutely correct. The summer after Big Sur, I probably would have gone no matter where the trip was too, but I practically flipped when I heard it was in Honduras. I had been to Mexico several times, but rarely was I able to escape the tourist zones and really get to know the culture, which is what I craved. This was the trip that really changed my life.
I was sent to rural Honduras. And I mean, RURAL. We stayed in a hotel in a city, but in order to work on the houses we were building, we had to take trips down pot-hole ridden streets and bumpy dirt trails for hours. On site we worked with local Hondurans to make just two cinder-block houses, while the rest of the town came to study us with unbounded and unabashed curiosity. After lunch we’d organize a large game of soccer with the local children, then back to work. We worked hard and the days were long and almost unbearably hot, but we arrived at the hotel smiling every single night. Each day we learned more about a foreign culture and cross-cultural exchange from people with whom we could barely communicate than months of teaching would have given us in our native country. And, sure enough, these were the days that most shaped my future.
After Honduras, I knew it was official. I loved Latin America. And I knew I wanted more experiences with the real people of the region, not just hotel receptionists and Canadians on vacation. I had already been studying Spanish, but I came back and got to it with renewed vigor. If I was going to meet the real Latin America, I was going to need MUCH more Spanish than I had at the moment. Then college rolls around, where my convincing accent and desire to learn soon landed me a major in Spanish Linguistics from UC Davis. But where to go from there? The memories of Mexican and Costa Rican beaches I had previously bummed around on never left me, but the experience of visiting the startlingly real Honduras and giving my time to help a community in need were a far greater motivating force to apply for the Peace Corps in Latin America. With the goals of volunteerism for sustainable development and intercultural education, there was no better fit for me. (And there is no doubt in my mind that SSP was the key factor leading to my acceptance into the Peace Corps.) There I was accepted into the Health sector where I worked in a tiny town for 2 years and 3 months in rural Nicaragua, working with health workers, educators, and, most importantly, youth, in sexual education. It was like SSP on steroids. Unimaginably challenging, yet incomparably rewarding.
But now I’m back in the USA. No longer volunteering, no longer in my beloved Latin America. But the experiences I have volunteering with SSP and Peace Corps continue to shape who I am and what I value in my life. I wouldn’t take them back for anything. Anyone who has limited volunteer or travel experience and is on the fence about whether or not to do an SSP trip, even if it’s within the United States, I unequivocally suggest that you do it. I never cease to credit the Sierra Service Project for opening up my eyes to that much more of the world.