My first time out of the country was a visit to Belize with a volunteering group when I was 14. The emphasis was on discipline and character-building as our team spent a month and a half living in tents, washing our clothes and selves in buckets, and digging the ditches for a hurricane shelter.
My parents were understandably surprised when I signed up with the same group the following summer, but I wanted to be pushed even further out of my comfort zone. Like many people around the world, the earthquake had put Haiti on my radar the year before, so I headed off to help clear rubble from a tent city in the capital.
Then, one week into our stay, I caught cholera and spent five days in a tent hospital recovering and trying to figure out how this extreme experience had changed my life. Finally, I had to admit that the most significant thing about getting sick was that there was nothing really significant about it. But maybe that was a revelation of sorts too – I had to stop going off to the poor places in search of a story for myself.
My response was to strive for other people and their stories. I taught myself Haitian Creole so that I could listen better, and I was able to intern at a school despite being only sixteen years old on the basis of my experience and language skills. In this position I had the freedom to set my own schedule and activities, to choose to build relationships instead of the houses or hurricane shelters I’d come to expect from my previous trips.
I spent most of the day walking around the village, stopping to talk to anyone who said “Hello” and doing my best to meet every request. I taught everyone from toddlers interested in finger-painting to old women who wanted to learn how to write their names. After I started waking up from panic dreams that I was neglecting my duties of teaching nonexistent night-school classes, I a) switched my malaria medication because it was totally giving me hallucinations, and b) reconsidered what my responsibilities in this situation really were.
Because many of my classes were focused on teaching English and languages have always been an interest of mine, I began considering more efficient ways to study them. I recalled that I picked up my Haitian Creole through self-study and without paying a cent – most of what can be learned can be found for free on the Internet. I realized it’s not enough to give someone a fish, or even to teach them how to fish – you’ve got to teach them how to Google how to fish, so they can teach themselves.
So, I began turning to technology, and then planning a computer center, and then I received 10 XOs from Unleash Kids through their Contributors’ Program, and then…well, the rest is on this blog. I just wanted to let you know that when I first went to Haiti I was looking for something to happen to me, and then it did and I realized that what I actually needed was to make something happen. So here I go. Thanks for the support.