I'm writing this from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, just North of the Equator. I'm teaching classes on "Altruism and Social Justice" as we sail around the world on Semester at Sea, an academic university program that emphasizes field studies. My classes are really just jumping off points for the service projects that we are doing while spending a week in each port, working in schools, hospitals, orphanages, and community agencies. The stated purpose of the courses are to inspire people to become more directly involved in service to help those who are most neglected and marginalized. We have people aboard the ship who are interested in issues related to poverty, urban renewal, sexual abuse, child slavery, human rights, genocide, sustainable agriculture, environmental responsibility, restorative justice, and other ideas they can't yet quite articulate.
The goal of our work together is to help each participant to discover or create some project that might make a difference in the world, whether locally or globally. I am demonstrating to them how surprisingly easy it is to begin such an effort--by anyone--anywhere. All it takes is one gesture, one action to help someone and from the effort other possibilities may grow. I have spoken in an earlier article about how my project with Empower Nepali Girls began by saving just one girl who was not allowed to attend school and from that initial effort and the help of so many others we are now operating in more than dozen areas throughout the country. Anyone can do this anywhere that speaks to their heart.
We have just sailed 1,000 miles up the Amazon River, then traveled another 100 miles by boat, bus, ferry, another bus, then a canoe, into the jungle to a remote village of a few dozen huts and a broken down school. We spent the several days refurbishing the school, building a bridge over a stream to improve access, but more importantly, we have spent time with the children and the teachers. This is a place where they still hunt with bows and arrows, where they have never before had North American visitors, where they have been virtually ignored and neglected by their national government. They are lost, forgotten, yet spectacularly happy in their daily lives and grateful that we have showed up to lend assistance.
It is hilarious trying to communicate about the most basic things. The villagers don'tspeak a word of English, or Spanish, so we do the best we can with our meager Portuguese. I look around and see some of our crew hammering, sawing, painting, while others are playing games with the children--soccer, ring around the rosy, duck, duck, goose, volleyball, face painting. We are trading English words for the local dialect, each of us grateful for the gifts. When they notice our energy flagging in the brutal tropical sun, they ply us with thick, sweet, fragrant Brazilian coffee in tiny cups. We are covered in insect bites, sunburned skin, exhausted, yet deliriously happy and content. Everyone is giggling and hugging one another.
For many among our team, this is their first experience involved in a major service project, especially one in such a novel environment. We are all sleeping together in hammocks strung across a kind of treehouse. We eat rice and beans with some bits of meat we later learn was horse, or it could have been that five foot crane that some kid carried by a few hours ago. As exotic and challenging the environment, as difficult as it was to get to this place in the exact center of the most remote part of the South American continent, there are similar needs within our own communities. I have with me the next generation of idealists and altruists, young people who want to change the world, who WILL the change the world. This is just the first month of our world voyage that will continue by launching similar projects through the African and Asian continents. But it isn't necessary to travel half-way around the globe to make a difference.
Anyone can do this. Anywhere. It begins with the first step. And that first gesture must involve finding/discovering/creating a cause that is dear to your heart and touches your soul. This work is so difficult, so challenging, so frustrating at times, often feeling futile and unappreciated, that it is crucial that the mission sustain you over the long haul. How many such projects have you begun in your life that lost meaning or momentum after that initial surge of enthusiasm? How often in your life have you made commitments to causes that you said were so important yet eventually lost interest? How frequently have you read articles like this, nodded to yourself, and vowed you would follow through on something of interest, only to have "forgotten" days or even hours later?
What' I'm proposing is that you commit yourself to some small, modest project that provides some service to one needy group of people. Tell others what you are doing so it is harder to back out. Better yet, invite others to join you so that you build a community of like-minded people who can support one another. Find something that is not work but rather feels like a gift you are giving to yourself as much as to others. You are allowed, even encouraged, to be selfish about this. It is no coincidence that I choose to work in Nepal-- I love the mountains and the people there; I feel at home. I could as easily do this work of rescuing girls in Ghana, Thailand, Columbia, or Los Angeles, but I want to reward myself, sustain myself, by working where I feel most inspired. So should you, wherever that might be, with whomever that might be.
Jeffrey A. Kottler, Ph.D., is a professor of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, author of 80 books, and President of the grassroots organization Empower Nepali Girls.