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Rachel Olstein Kaplan Headshot

How Much Is Short Term Service Worth?

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Why spend thousands of dollars to fly to Rwanda, do service for a week or two, and then fly home?

As a leader of short-term service trips, I am often asked this question. It's natural to question the logic. Wouldn't these dollars be better spent if they were all poured directly into the project?

But I measure the success of the trip not in dollars raised or bricks laid, but in lives inspired and world realities revealed. As I read the testimonials of volunteers, I am struck each time by how powerful 10 days can be.

During a service-learning trip, a group of 20 volunteers will...

  • do nearly 1000 hours of hands-on service.
  • share 600 meals with the kids at Agahozo-Shalom.
  • spend 40 hours at Family Time engaged in intimate conversations with the 18 members (16 kids, one mother, one counselor) of each family.
  • teach conversational English to the 378 kids at the Village.
  • engage in 250 hours of structured learning and discussions about the value of their experience

These numbers may (or may not) be impressive in and of themselves, and they do speak to the value of the experience, but they do not reveal the whole picture. Beyond the empirical data are the stories, observations and life choices of the volunteers (and those of the students they work with at the Village).

With distances shrinking daily, hands-on interaction is increasingly important. In our interconnected world -- where everything from our coffee to our coats to our vegetables comes from a different country -- we are nevertheless disconnected from the world outside our own bubbles when it comes to news and politics.

The Rwandan genocide is remembered most for being a time when the West turned its back and walked away. And the truth is that those of us in the West continue to dismiss most international news stories as soon as we've finished our morning coffee. Unless we know someone there, or have seen these places in person, we can tune them out. But once we've been there, the connection is made, the reality clear. The names and dots on a map become faces, flavors, smells and memories.

For each volunteer who visits Agahozo-Shalom, the impact lasts forever.

A sophomore at Tufts wrote that the experience "allowed for us to learn, to grow, and to gain a first-hand perspective so that we can serve as ambassadors for Rwanda, activists against genocide, and voices for the continuity of a moral world." The volunteers who visit the Village -- even for 10 days -- become advocates who will no longer read news stories apathetically or remain silent when their voice can make change.

Meanwhile, the volunteers bring a taste of the larger world to the doorsteps of the kids who call Agahozo-Shalom home. While we cannot send each Agahozo-Shalom student abroad, the volunteers who come from England, Canada, Israel the U.K. and the U.S. offer them a global perspective and expanded worldview that is a rare commodity in Rwanda.

According to one volunteer, the kids at Agahozo, "see us, American volunteers, as a huge opportunity for them to get ahead in English and they take advantage of every minute we are here." Agahozo-Shalom's kids, who come to the Village with little or no English, receive one-on-one tutoring from volunteers, opening the doors to higher education in Rwanda that (as of 2010) is taught only in English.

Last March, a volunteer alumna from Yale University wrote me a letter saying that she would like to spend the summer baking and selling bread to help support the Village. "My experience at ASYV has changed both me and the way I look at life to an immeasurable degree and I would like to continue doing all I can to ensure the continuation of the Village plans." Charlotte Wright, from Tufts University, set up a small fundraising venture (complete with its own website) and encouraged students at her former high school to go door-to-door spreading the word about the Village.

Another volunteer said simply, "I feel like I have gained a sense of purpose from this trip."

We can only just begin to see the impacts of a short-term program, for the true value of the trip plays out over a much longer time. When I first meet groups before going to Rwanda, I welcome them into a lifelong commitment. The Agahozo-Shalom volunteer experience does not begin or end with the 14,400 minutes or 240 hours that comprise the trip itself; it goes far beyond. During the trip itself, the participants ask tough questions about how they choose to do service or whom they decide to help.

And when they return home, volunteers share their stories, post pictures, and speak about their experience in Rwanda. Many students change their life path, switch majors, speak publicly on behalf of the Village or energetically fundraise. Yesterday, I received an email from Jenna Basman, a 19-year-old reflecting on her volunteer experience. "Today is my last day in the Village and I can honestly say that this experience has been the most heartwarming, eye-opening happening of my life. I came here to volunteer my time and try make a difference in the village, and I know that I did make a significant impact, but the lessons, inspiration and knowledge that I gained from being here far surpasses what I've given."

After a service-learning trip, each student at Agahozo-Shalom and each volunteer walks through the world a bit differently, informed with new experiences and a broadened horizon. Whether consciously or not, their lives have been affected. Slowly, as they live out the course of their lives, the true value begins to show.