When I was in college, I was the two-term president of my university’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, the national service fraternity. Thank you for the rapturous applause, which I’m just assuming that you just gave me after reading that impressive sentence.
As president, I was responsible for keeping things running smoothly, which was quite the challenge, despite everyone’s incredible devotion to the fraternity. My oft-repeated mantra was “Things are fallin’ through the cracks.” The saying has a folksy charm to it, Palin-esque even. It reminded people to stay on top of their assignments and see them through to the end. It gave me the reputation of someone who really wanted our organisation to succeed. It also gave me the reputation for being a jerk.
In Togo, I live my life like Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man. I say yes to almost everything. I have a few steadfast rules about when to say no (I won’t accept any marriage offers, especially when parents offer me their toddlers). But generally speaking, when someone gives me an opportunity, I take it. I’m trying to squeeze as much out of this outrageously phenomenal experience as I can!
So over the first few months, I sought out as many opportunities, work or social, as I could. If someone offered me a chance to do something, I’d say yes. Help out on a malaria prevention campaign? Sure! Teach high school English? Definitely. Go to a neighboring village and see my Bassar tutor’s mom’s grave? Um…fine?
At first, my Yes Man attitude helped me get connected. But in December, it almost ruined my entire service.
The volunteer whom I replaced, Meg, created an AMAZING health club at the village middle school. The kids were so excited to continue the club with me, and I felt the same. But we ran into a few problems.
The first problem was the school calendar. Because of an important conference in Lomé, Togo’s capital, the first day of school across the entire country was pushed back almost an entire month. Frequent strikes after the school year started didn’t help much, either.
The day after school finally started in mid-October, I was on a bus to Lomé, getting ready to go home and say goodbye to my grandmother for the last time.
Finally, after weeks of hoping to get the club back up and running, we settled on our first date: Wednesday, December 7th. Progress!
The students and I were both elated to get the club restarted. They learned so much from Meg and wanted to keep learning and sharing that information.
I just had a tiny problem. I committed to work on a different project the same morning. So, all I had to do was make it home before 2pm and I’d be fine!
You already know how the story ends. I didn’t make it back in time. I was stuck in a village two hours away from my own, a village so remote that even trying to call my students and tell them I wouldn’t be there would be futile.
I was devastated. I came to Togo to help people, to try to make a difference. Thanks to my poor planning, the kids would lose out on this crucial opportunity to succeed. I was so disappointed in myself.
Things were fallin’ through the cracks.
I spent the next day sulking. After school, a few kids from the health club came over.
I started by profusely apologizing, maybe more than I’ve ever apologized before. I tried to eschew my own guilt by buying the students candy and cookies.
To my surprise, they weren’t angry. “Gbati [my village name],” they told me, “since you weren’t there, we took the time to organize the group and get a list of students.”
That was the day I learned an extremely valuable and humbling lesson. This experience isn’t about me.
A year ago today, I sat at the Pittsburgh International Airport thinking about how I would grow from this experience. I fantasized about the character growth I’d undertake, the life lessons I’d learn that would make me a better person, the biceps I’d miraculously develop just from living in West Africa.
Am I a better person, now, a year later? I don’t know. I hope so. But that isn’t what I’ve taken away from the experience. What I’ve learned is that some of the people in my village, especially the students in my health club, are fantastic, self-starting, resourceful, amazing people. My job isn’t to teach them how to succeed; they already know how. My job is to support and encourage them in any way I can. This is a lesson that humbles me every day.
Thank you for indulging me in my sappiness. Now back to the story!
My big goal for the health club was to do a community-wide malaria health talk for World Malaria Day on April 25th. The health club was extremely gung-ho about this idea.
Tests, soccer matches, and spring break canceled our club meetings, and, by extension, my grand plan. I was about to call the entire thing off–it just wasn’t going to work. We wouldn’t have enough time to do it and do it well.
Unsurprisingly, it was the awesome students who convinced me to plan it anyway. They worked around the clock on writing and executing their own presentations.
Their health talk was the most wonderful moment of my entire service. The students so masterfully created engaging and informative presentations, and they shared their research with 230 impressionable middle schoolers. Thanks to my students’ hard work, there are now literally hundreds of students with knowledge that they can share with their families to prevent the awful effects of malaria, Togo’s #1 killer.
After the presentation, the director of the middle school came up to me to congratulate me for putting on such a wonderful talk.
A huge smile spread across my face. “I didn’t do anything,” I told him. “It was all your students. They’re the ones that deserve the credit.”
These students are truly phenomenal. Watching them succeed has been one of the greatest honors of my entire life.