These Things Are Not Sacrifices by Emily Jacke
It is a privilege to be able to help people.
This thought has bubbled to the surface many times over the course of this week, especially as we prepare to wake early tomorrow morning, pack our bags, and return to our “first world” lives—with insulated houses, and beds of our own, and personal space, and financial security.
It is a privilege to be able to help people—to take time from summer vacation, from work, from family, to put up the funds to fly halfway across the country, to purchase extra supplies (like sleeping bags and sleeping pads) to choose to sleep on a floor and leave our phones behind and not worry about destroying our sneakers if we dig ten feet into the muddy ground to rescue a water pump or spill on our pants while we paint the ceiling, and the imagination to believe that we can make a difference. These things are not sacrifices.
Coming here has been an eye opening, heart-wrenching, and empowering experience. We arrived eager to help, eager to work, to throw ourselves into this place and these people, and each of us will walk away from this experience knowing not only that we can do things we didn’t know we could do, but also that we are a part of a greater whole—the incredible, heart-lead work of Simply Smiles—and that even the baby steps we have taken here made a difference. That is not a sacrifice, but a gift.
And it may be a cliche but it is no less relevant that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I have studied a sliver of anthropology’s perspective on the impact of development and conservation work in Africa and Papua New Guinea, among other places, and too often—too often—the power of “Western” organizations and individuals to do good is channeled into a system wherein efforts to “help” and “fix” become formulaic and impersonal, with a fallout of hundreds of unintended consequences, usually social, frequently harmful, and rooted in a kind of irresponsibility.
There are two kinds of work that Simply Smiles asks of volunteers: the tangible work we can sweat, and touch, and get all over our bodies (in the case of mud), and see at the end of the week how far we got, and the hard work, the work you can’t touch with your hands, of connecting, of caring, of building relationships with the people who live here. Generosity of hand and heart.
It is this latter work that makes the former work responsible. In getting to know these people, this place, this community, in giving not only our sweat but also our love, we hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We are forced to consider and to contextualize.
Someone paraphrased Einstein as having said, “We cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” This sentiment could not be more true in the case of La Plant. The story of how these people, and this place, came to be this way, is a story of dehumanization. All the complexity of these people and this place deserves all the complexity of compassion from human to human.
As I sit here writing, I contend that the work of our hearts is in fact something you can see. At the beginning of this week, many of the kids here saw us as much like strange monsters as the lion in Through the Looking Glass sees Alice. Today, piggy back rides are not only demanded but shared, conversations flow between people who know each other—at least a little. We know the names and faces of many of these kids, we know a little about their lives. We love them. We ache to think of those who return at night to homes without sound roofs, to families who suffer, to empty dreams, as some do, and we rejoice to make them laugh, to watch them focus, to hear them dream, to see them smile.
We are now trying to understand how to be responsible—how we can stay connected to the pieces of our hearts that we will leave here when we get on that big red bus tomorrow morning.
And we are lucky, so so lucky, to have had the opportunity to to come here, to help, even a little. To learn so much about ourselves in the context of the lives of people who have survived so much, who live so often against the odds. To be able to imagine that we could make change, and to have the resources of heads, hands, and hearts, to try.
Emily Jacke is one of five adult leaders with the Middlebury Congregational Church’s Senior Youth Group. A recent graduate of Middlebury College, she uses the word “adult” loosely, since she only filed her taxes as an independent for the first time this year.