I have been meaning to write this blog post for almost two weeks now, ever since I came back from my spring break trip to Lima, Peru. I was skeptical of the idea of going on a “service” trip from the beginning. As a GST major and someone who spent four months living in Latin America, I was totally over the idea that we were going to go into Peru for a week like heroes and make a big difference. But I liked the fact that the trip involved working with local organizations (and of course, traveling to a new country), so I decided to go.
The distinction between social service and social change was something that was so relevant to my week in Peru and was something that I was thinking about the entire time. In a lot of obvious ways, what we did and what we saw was service- us lugging 16 suitcases full of donations of clothes, shoes, hygiene products, and schools supplies (not an easy feat, I might add), the organization that provides food and medical care to elderly people with no where else to go, the organization that provides a home to abandoned pregnant teenagers. But what I loved about these organizations was that they didn’t just provide their clients with a service- they were also working towards change by empowering them. And, in order to do so, they were using different types of education.
The organization for the elderly challenges the fact that these people feel like they have nothing left to live for and can’t contribute to society by teaching them different skills- jewelry making, craft making, and, for many, reading and writing. We were told that, when many of them first arrived at the organization, they were depressed, basically just waiting to die, and many were confined to wheelchairs. Now, so many of them are confident and happy, and some have even started walking again. The home for pregnant teenagers/young mothers also teaches them skills, such as knitting, sewing, and baking, so that once they leave the organization, they have some way of supporting themselves and can hopefully avoid returning to their prior situations. They also teach the girls healthy and appropriate parenting skills to try to break the cycle of violence and neglect that caused their own situations.
My favorite organization that we visited was called Vichama Teatro, an after school program for young kids in the shanty town of Villa El Salvador. This program uses art and theater as a way of not only keeping kids in school and out of gangs, but also as a way of empowering them and teaching them that they can bring about social change in their communities. The kids identify a problem in their community, such as too much trash in the streets, and they make a video or a play about the issue and why it’s important. I was blown away by how articulate and confident, at 10 and 11 years old, these kids were when they talked to us about their program and why it’s important. When they spoke, they took ownership of their community, especially the huge problem of violence that plagues their town. They talked about how they teach their peers about how they need to end violence in their neighborhood.
As corny as it sounds, meeting these people gave me a lot of hope for the future. It was incredibly inspiring to see how they, despite the fact that they are surrounded by poverty and its inherent issues, are striving for a better society. This trip made me see how important it is to have a balance of social service and social change. There are obvious and immediate needs that people have right now, that can be provided for with service, and there is the hope for a better, different world, that can only be answered with change.