I visit many classrooms when I am talking to undergrads about service learning. The two biggest questions I get are “What is service learning” and “Why should I do it?”
So I have set out on a mission. I want to tell everyone I can about the amazing benefits of service learning and how it not only affects you, but how it affects the communities you serve.
In October 2016 I participated in a service learning trip from the student side of it. I wanted to know as a student what doing a service learning trip felt like, looked like, and how it would affect me. I did this so that I could know exactly what kind of experience I wanted to bring to the student service learners that I would be working with through my organization. I never would have imagined how it would change my life forever.
I set out on my journey to Petersfield Jamaica where I was met by Mr. Matthias Brown and an entourage of people that instantly told me I was now family. We left the airport for what I thought was going to be my two hour trip to where I would be staying. I was told when we were in the van that we would be stopping at a local Reggae concert where they would have local food. I thought, “well ok. that sounds fun.” We got to the concert and we sat with local people literally grilling right there where the concert was. Not a concession stand, not a restaurant, just local people who had gathered to hang out at a reggae concert. I was instantly invited to sit down and eat with these people that I didn’t know and was treated as if I had known them my entire life. They asked me about my family and how my trip was and told me all about who they were and how they knew this person or that person that lived in the U.S. here’s the best part about this whole conversation: They asked me did I know the people that they were talking about. That was my first clue that these people are one big community and because they were they naturally thought people in the U.S. must be.
We left the concert and traveled another hour to where I would be staying for the next 7 days. I was taken into Miss Norma’s house given a brief tour and was taken to my room where clearly she entertained more than one person on other service learning trips. Miss Norma serves as a “House mom” in Petersfield for students that come in groups to do service learning trips through another service learning organization that has been present in this community for many years. There were four twin beds. Two on one wall, two on the opposite wall. A beautiful armoire that looked as if it were 100 years old, a fan (Thank God) a small table and a chair. There were towels stacked on one of the beds and all of the beds were made. She told me to pick whichever bed I wanted to sleep in, told me that she would see me in the morning, gave me a hug and told me she was glad I was there, and left closing the door behind her.
The next morning I was awoken by something that I had never been exposed to before…..roosters….they really like to get up early…. I really am still not sure I love roosters after my stay in Jamaica….I am still processing the PTSD from having them surround my window and screech every morning while pecking on my window. I’m kidding, this is one of the fondest memories I have of this trip. The next thing that happened was I smelled the most heavenly scent I have ever smelled. I had no idea what it was but my Lord it smelled divine. Shortly after I tried to reason with the roosters about possibly starting at a later time the next morning, I heard Miss Norma scuffling down the hallway in her slippers saying loudly, “Jennifer……get up…..breakfast is ready!” What? Had my ears deceived me? Did she say breakfast was ready? I was getting a home cooked breakfast without having to make it for myself?? Ok. I might be able to get used to this. I got up, got dressed and made my way out to the dining room of this 5 room house thinking that surely I must be in heaven because they just don’t make smells like this in the U.S. She directed me to the small dining room table surrounded by shelves full of ceramic “knick knacks,” a china cabinet full of dishes, and a door at the rear of the house that was standing open to let the breeze in. There was no screen and as I scanned my surroundings I saw my friends the roosters standing at this back door as if to see who this new stranger was that was in the house. I sat down at the table that was sat with my plate, a fresh glass of juice with ice, a napkin, a fork and a cup of coffee…. anyone who knows me, knows this instantly made me fall in love with my new house mom. On my plate was what looked like a biscuit, and some sausage. As a girl raised in the south, we know a little summin summin about sausage biscuits and gravy but this was not that. This was “dumplings and sausage” and it was the most divine amazing piece of heaven on a plate that I have ever in my life sunk my teeth into. There was also fried plantain and if you have never had fried plantain then I suggest you find your nearest Jamaican and tell them you have been deprived your entire life of fried plantain. They will instantly take pity, find the nearest frying pan and lard and make you understand the gift from God that is called fried plantain. After eating my breakfast I was told that Mr. Brown would be picking me up to take me to a few different places around Petersfield.
Over the next seven days I would take part in teaching in a 5 year old classroom at the galloway district elementary school (these babies now have my heart), I would teach a 5th grade class at the primary school and a 6th grade class at the primary school, I would have lunch with an amazing group of 5th graders who told me all about who they were and where they lived and how they were going to come to America when they were older. I saw kids who were learning in a classroom that was open to other classrooms by only 3/4 to the roof walls. I saw kids that were some of the most respectful children I have ever met in my life. The 5 year olds would sit in their seats that were literally packed into a room not much bigger than most American bedrooms quietly while the teacher taught them their lesson responding when cued by saying, “Yes teacher.” or “No teacher” I watched as boys in the 5th grade class fought over rubber band guns they had picked up on the way to school that day as if these rubber band guns were their prized possessions. I ate my lunch of rice and beans and fruit with a bottle of juice and thought it was the best thing I had ever tasted in my life. I saw as some kids didn’t have lunch money but were not turned away from eating because the personnel at the school know that sometimes this is one of the only meals these kids get during the day. Kids at the elementary school got porridge…. this was my first experience with porridge…. I am still contemplating whether I am a porridge fan.
I would visit a local beach, where the people of the community hung out with grills and cooked jerk chicken for family and friends, I would go to a local church where Mr. Brown would take his niece to see the non-profit eye doctor that checks the local people’s eyes and fits them for glasses. I would make my way to Sav-la-Mar where I would eat at the local KFC which is NOTHING like the KFC’s here in America…. You can literally buy Jerk chicken at the KFC there. WHAT? Whoa. I went to a Jamaican grave digging get together, had a “learn how to cook Jamaican cuisine” night where I learned how to make brown stew chicken (MY NEW FAVORITE CHICKEN OF ALL TIME) and curry chicken (ALSO AMAZING BUT DIDN’T BEAT OUT THE BROWN STEW CHICKEN) I would celebrate my being there at the Association of clubs and I would celebrate my leaving at the Association of clubs. I would visit the local “Bar” which is nothing like any bar here in the U.S. and I would eat “Jamaican BBQ” in the mountains.
Having been to Jamaica a total of 6 times now 5 of which I visited as a tourist, this visit ruined any other visits I had or would have from now until the end of time. I was part of the community. I was greeted with kindness and curiosity and treated as if I would forever be called a part of the family. And that is exactly what happened. I get videos from my 5 year old babies on the regular, I started a pen pal program with the 5th graders in Petersfield with my daughter’s 5th grade class (they have been writing all year now) and I formed life long relationships with people who for all intents and purposes served as MY COMMUNITY. I learned exactly what community was and why it was so important to be community. I learned what it felt like to know that everyone around me wanted only for my happiness and in turn I learned how I wanted theirs. These people gave me insight that I had never before been privy to and it was invaluable and life changing.
And that……….. that is why you should do service learning. So you can understand community. So you can see the benefits of being a community and being global. So you can feel what it means to have everyone around you wanting only for your happiness and success and so you can feel what it feels like to want the same thing for people that come from a different culture and place than you do. I promise you…..
It will change your life forever. And you will learn if you do or do not love roosters…..and porridge.
It’s been fun chatting. Until next time….