Type of Project: Service-Learning & Community Service
1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.
My STEP Signature Project had me volunteering in a charity for economically disadvantaged disabled children for a span of three weeks at the end of last summer in Cochabamba, Bolivia. My main responsibilities including playing constructive games with the children, most aged 9-12, such as dancing, as well as keeping them under control, which proved quite a struggle at times. I would say about half or just over half of the children, numbering about 25, had down syndrome, while a fourth were in wheelchairs, and another fourth had other disabilities including autism. Every day proved a new challenge in controlling the children, as many would try to run out or lash out in violence at other children; commonly, I stepped in to calm down the kids, often having to rely on silly games to get them distracted.
2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? Write one or two paragraphs to describe the change or transformation that took place.
I’ve had an immense amount of experience abroad, having lived in Caracas, Venezuela for 7 years and having been to five continents before the age of 20. But never before have I been a volunteer abroad, allocating most my time to helping an organization in an impoverished community. It was a really special experience to not merely hear about an organization like CEOLI (Center for Educational and Vocational Preparation for the Disabled) but actually be a part of their noble mission and feel I was giving back. Unlike a lot of the banality I trudge through at Ohio State, the challenges I faced were difficult ones I grew from taking on each and every day.
In terms of direct appreciation, I’d say that the public school I attended had fantastic resources for disabled children. CEOLI was not just an after-school or summer “daycare” for the children (as I had first imagined), it was their entire school. These were children whose parents could not pay for expensive special care at exclusive schools, so CEOLI operated as their education from age 3 to age 18, and even further for some as the organization attempts to get jobs for the kids. I grew really close to many of the children, and it breaks my heart to think about them still down there because I really hope that they can receive the care they need from CEOLI but it’s quite an uphill battle. The whole experience made me appreciative of the resources we have here in many parts of the US for disabled children, and I really wish those kids had that same care.
3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you? Write three or four paragraphs describing the key aspects of your experiences completing your STEP Signature Project that led to this change/transformation.
While I like to think I grew close to all the children I volunteered with, there was one in particular I grew a lot from. Belen Milagros was one of the youngest children in the classroom I volunteered in at 9 years old. She had down syndrome and was one of the wildest children, the teacher nicknaming her a “free spirit.” She would be one of the first children to get to the center each day and proved quite a struggle to calm down, loving to run around and escape the classroom to the playground at the center, getting into the trampoline and refusing to come out. Frozen was her absolute favorite movie, and commonly she would be close to screaming “Let It Go” (“Libre Soy” in Spanish) non-stop. She also grew very fond of me almost immediately, calling me “Papi” (daddy in Spanish) on the first occasion I met here.
It was an inconsistent relationship though; at times she’d be ecstatic as I walked into the room for the day, demanding I play with her. Other times she’d be very disinterested and play alone or sulk in a corner, not even wanting to be around other children. I always made it my mission though to get her involved with activities, using my fidget spinner or random toys in the classroom to change her spirits. Eventually, she grew to love when I picked her up, and would stand up on the tables acting like she needed help getting down just so I’d pick her up almost every hour. Every day however, I had to get more creative to keep her under control, and by the end of the trip I was more aware of her “tricks” and the appropriate action to take when she’d misbehave or demand attention. All in all though, she was one of the more energetic children to play with once she got going, and the challenges I had with her are probably the ones I directly learned the most from.
Another theme of the trip was independence. I was the only international volunteer on this trip, and absolutely the only person that spoke at least conversant English in the Center. There were other local University interns at the Center that I relied on for help (and friendship), but otherwise I went to CEOLI each day relying on myself to get to the Center, to communicate, and interact with the children. Likewise, I went on my own side-trip to the Uyuni salt flats near the Chilean border one weekend which required a three hour bus ride and a seven hour train ride in one direction. This was an endeavor I could have never imagined attempting in high school, traveling alone for that span of time relying on my Spanish, but truth be told it was not very challenging and I was very confident in my ability, being very cautious the whole time. On the trip itself, I was placed in a tour group with two British adults and three Austrian adults, being the youngest by about 17 years. However, I was the only person in the group to speak Spanish, and so I ended up being the group translator the entire trip between us and our Bolivian guide. I felt very proud of my ability and my confidence grew immensely from the excursion. It was perhaps the strangest social situation I’ve ever been in but it’s one I had a blast on.
Independence has not been something I’ve had to rely on as much as I thought I would my first two years of college. After the trip, I think I’ve really come to realize how much I can flourish when I not only live independently but live confidently independently. I really didn’t have a great experience in the residence halls, and instead of blaming myself like before, after the trip I really just think that the hyper-social culture, centered around an RA I never really wanted to get to know, was not conducive for my well-being. I might be in the minority on that, because I do realize that the residence halls usually cultivate strong friendships and healthy living patterns. But I don’t feel bad about appreciating independence anymore and I feel I can flourish now that I have this knowledge.
4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Write one or two paragraphs discussing why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.
Last semester, in short, was rough. Extremely rough. It was already a fairly tough semester with activities and classes, and then I had a very unfortunate and unexpected death in the family right before spring break. Post spring break semester felt unbearable at times, due to sadness and stress. I had two jobs, seventeen credit hours, extracurriculars, and endless internship applications that swamped me into an over-worked mess. Truthfully I get anxiety just thinking about the semester. Add in the very mediocre job I had at Morrill Tower for the first 2/3 of the summer, and this trip was my light at the end of the tunnel (a seemingly never-ending one at times). I faced a lot of doubt from people though, many amazed I was doing this alone, wondering what in the world I would do for recreation. Some even thought this might blow up in my face, that I had no idea what I was taking on. My own parents were somewhat concerned too, though they never once suggested I not do the trip. I didn’t disagree with a lot of the qualms people had, some were very fair because this was a very different kind of trip. Truth be told, I had a lot of the same doubts in the back of my head, and though I did a good job of keeping them dormant they were absolutely still there.
The trip, however, was absolutely everything I could have dreamed of and more. It was exactly what I needed after all I faced last semester and in the summer. More importantly though, what I take away most from the trip is the realization that the trip was only that amazing because of my attitude. I went in with all that doubt accompanied with a healthy attitude to prove it wrong, and that I did within the first week. Many situations/scenarios I would have previously been uncomfortable with, such as the 45 minute bus ride to the Center that also required me to scream “Esquina!” to get off of (instead of there being pre-set bus stops), my exclusively Spanish-speaking host family, the Uyuni-salt flats trip with 5 foreign adults all at least seventeen years older than me, and not to mention the actual service itself, were ones I had no problem with because I was flexible and understanding. I took nothing for granted and had no entitlement whatsoever, grateful for all the help I received with no expectations other than to wake up the next day once more to do my duty. I made friends quickly with people I would usually probably not be friends with, cultivating connections I still currently have now. This unselfish attitude that I reaped great dividends from is something I hope to carry with me in my personal and professional goals, because I realize, especially in contrast to much of my time at Ohio State, how much I ended up flourishing form it.