Tamara Caruso ’11 first tasted the struggle being present and being productive during her two years of service in Grays Harbor, WA and Honduras. Now in her second year of teaching, she continually draws on what she learned about community and service during two years of service.
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together."
This quote by Australian Aboriginal elder Lila Watson has become the driving force of my approach to service and working for change. It echoes as I look back over my service years as a Jesuit Volunteer in Grays Harbor, WA and as a teacher in Honduras.
Did I go to help? My original motivation for these years of service was to, as the JVC motto goes, “be ruined for life” and to find answers to my questions about how to work for positive change in our world. But in both experiences, I was at first hindered by my desire to be productive and make an impact.
My placement in Grays Harbor, one of the poorest counties in Washington, had a very vague job description, and besides coordinating an after school tutoring program, I found myself often bored and frustrated as I searched for meaningful work. I understood but had trouble accepting the value in commuting by public transit through the rain and snow for an hour and a half just to spend a half hour lunch with my middle school mentee. I went to numerous meetings at nonprofits and community organizations where I was never sure of my place but wished I had a purpose.
Feed the Hungry, a free lunch program my placement offered, taught me to embrace the work of just being present—of the Krista service ethic of “staying for tea.” There, I was able to cross the barrier between the volunteers in the kitchen and guests in the dining room. Instead of staying at my assigned volunteer post, I sat and ate lunch with guests, listening to their stories and building relationships. There, I learned how my liberation was bound up in theirs, and how we could serve each other. It came down to acknowledging the dignity in each other and to exposing my own poverty and isolation. The privilege of driving my own car from point A to point B and making or buying my own food and eating it wherever I choose keeps me confined in my own world. But in Grays Harbor, I was part of the community. I experienced and participated in the relationships among bus riders and drivers and I witnessed the family that was created through this communal free lunch. I also gained a deeper understanding of the history and complexity of this struggling town’s economic issues. All from just being present.
Although I learned a lot as a Jesuit Volunteer, I was left with even more questions about the injustices I experienced and felt overwhelmed about how one person could work for change within such a complex system. To continue exploring these questions, I served another year as a teacher at a Catholic bilingual school in Honduras. I thought I was bringing fewer expectations to my service, but this question of what I was doing met me square in the face when I finished grading the final exams for my first quarter. That night, I sat on the floor crying, feeling like I had failed my students because many did not pass my exams. Thankfully, an experienced friend helped me realize that the reason for not passing was less about my teaching and more about the broken education system and the challenges many students and families faced. My students were operating in their second language and lacked a solid educational foundation due to the instability of relying on mostly young, inexperienced volunteers as their teachers. At home they dealt with challenges ranging from family substance abuse to living with distant relatives because their parents were working in the states to help make ends meet.
Again, I found that by focusing on building and learning from relationships rather than productivity, I could grow in my understanding of the complex issues in Honduras, and be liberated by the people of Honduras from some of my own personal weaknesses and ways that my culture and upbringing held me back.
So now what?
I know that I have been ruined for life by encountering a multitude of complex issues and connecting with beautiful people who suffer as a result of these flawed systems. I often feel very overwhelmed when I reflect on these issues and cry out for mercy for these people whom I have grown to love, but don’t know exactly what I can do.
For the last year, I have been completely consumed by my first year of teaching. When I am in the classroom with my students, I am 100% present to them. While some teachers give assignments and let the kids work while they grade papers or answer emails, I am usually so wrapped up in my students and the learning that is happening that I totally lose track of time and end up rushing to wrap up class and get them out the door.
I have a wonderful opportunity to affect change by being present to my middle school students’ development and working to broaden their worldview. I hope to help them grow to become more compassionate, understanding, and able to bridge cultural and socioeconomic differences between people in our world. Not only do my volunteer experiences enter into my class discussions and interactions with students and staff, but they motivate me to evaluate my school's service program and figure out how to make it much more intentional. I would like to grow this program so we are not just raising money and goods, but are building relationships, learning about issues, and growing as individuals so our liberation may be bound up with those we are serving. I also want to incorporate reflection, discussions, and maybe research into these issues and communities we are donating to. I must make these service experiences matter, as an educator, by applying what I learned and sharing my understanding, in order to help lead my students to the same growth in awareness so that we are not just helping others, but walking alongside them.