Ridiculed for Going Against the Norm.
The students began the service learning project in front of the city building and next to the community’s open market, where everything from live chickens to fresh pineapples is sold for a few Quetzales. I was in charge of the video camera, so I selected a small group of students to tag along with, recording their progress. They began by marching right into the middle of the market, which was littered with a disgusting barrage of discarded waste. Typical of many developing nations, there was such a lack of respect for the environment that trash was universally thrown to the ground without a second thought. As the students began filing their trash bags, I was astonished as some people in the market began to ridicule them. People selling, buying, and even some just walking by, stopped to marvel and these youth picking up the community’s trash…and several smirked and pointed! It was impossible for the students not to notice. They persisted in their tasks, but their eyes rarely left the space between the ground and the trash bag they were carrying. These students were being belittled for offering their time to improve the community. I was infuriated!
No Sustainable Resolution
The second negative aspect to the project was the fact that hours of work by over 100 youth, created no sustainable resolution. My first big clue to this came when I realized, toward the end of the project, that I had forgotten to get any “before” footage. I wanted some video of the filthy streets before the project, to glorify the students work by showing the pristine cleanliness after the project. I walked to a side street just off the market. I was confused–it was littered with trash. I wondered out loud which students had been assigned this area, and why they had skipped over it. “At least I can get some ‘before’ footage,” I thought, as I crouched down to get a close up of some garbage, holding the camera at an angle to include the littered street behind it. Just then, my 17-year-old daughter walked toward me with a group of students. She glanced around, then with a confused look said, “Hey, we cleaned this street! What happened?” Within hours, the same thing happened everywhere, and, other than the stuffed bottles, soon no evidence remained of the work of so many willing hands.
Still, the Positives Trump the Negatives
is better understood by reversing the words and adding “from”–Learning from Service. Despite these two unfortunate negatives, it’s this aspect of learning that made this project so remarkably successful. A classroom discussion of community reform can have virtually no affect unless coupled with real-life experience. Service learning is the perfect way to gain that experience. By participating in this service project, these youth saw the ugly truth that exists in their culture and community. With their own hands, by offering their own service, they became eye-witnesses to both the successes and failures of the project, qualifying them, by virtue of participation, to be a decision maker in future steps. This first service project was not a waste of time or effort, but a directional springboard, giving way to more effective means.
Where Did it Lead?
In 2014, two years later, Yuda Bands sponsored students, participated in another service project involving trash. The students, along with Yuda Bands in-country directors, spent months collaborating with the city officials, including the mayor and health inspector, before launching a city-wide survey, gathering data which would help them determine how to conquer the problem of waste management. They organized their data on a spreadsheet, analyzed it, and proposed ideas for change. The data gathered by the students included such helpful information as the willingness of citizens to pay for waste disposal from their own homes, whether or not there was a market for mulch, created by harvesting the organic waste left in the marketplace each week, and the number of trash receptacles needed to adequately cover the city. The youth and their leaders even suggested ideas for a “community awareness campaign”, teaching the importance of recycling and cleanliness through local tv and radio stations.
Service Learning is a Process
Today, there is still trash in the streets of San Martin Jilotepeque, but there is noticeable improvement. Many of the ideas and suggestions developed through this service learning process are yet to be implemented, but progress is being made. Service learning continues to engage students and lead to change. By serving each other and their community, those involved in service learning extend classroom learning beyond walls and into a seed bed of potential.