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How Service Helped Me Find a Deeper Way to Live

What does volunteering teach you? This author explains how it helped her find a deeper way to live.

Five years in the city and I was ready for a change of scenery, a break from the busy. Day-in, day-out, I was waiting for the bus to go to work in the biting wind, and on too many days it breezed on by because it was already overcrowded. Fellow city dwellers were rushing from meeting to meeting, from social obligations to home without so much as a passing “hello” to those sharing the sidewalk. I was tired and ready to experience something completely new.

A number of college friends had spent time in East Africa and returned with stories of the joy and generosity of the people they met. That sounded like a welcome change to me, so I started to make a plan to break out of my life and try something different. That simple decision led to a month-long experience that changed my life — the things I learned have given me a new way to see the world.

Service taught me to widen my idea of family

I reached out to a friend who had spent time in Kenya and she introduced me to Phyllis Keino, the director of Lewa — a children’s home, school, and farm on the Kenya-Uganda highway. Phyllis founded Lewa when the children of close friends were orphaned by a car accident. She took them into her home and raised the children alongside her own. Lewa continued to grow in response to the needs of the local community and today provides a home and quality education for dozens of children who have been abandoned or orphaned by disease.

I emailed Phyllis to inquire about volunteer opportunities at Lewa. She responded with a warm welcome and we began planning for a month-long visit. Given my background in education, I could help by teaching English classes at the school and assisting with the library at the children’s home.

Upon arriving in Kenya, I was welcomed like family — much as the children are when they arrive at Lewa. I quickly slipped into the routine of the home and school:

  • Walk to school by 8 a.m.
  • Classes, followed by morning tea in the teachers’ lounge at 10:00
  • Lunch in the school cafeteria at 1 p.m.
  • Retrace the walk back to the home at 3:45
  • Play with the children until 6
  • Conclude the day with prayers and dinner

Evening prayers quickly became my favorite part of the day. The young children squeezed their eyes tightly shut, held their hands up in front of their noses, and offered prayers of petition and thanks for this extended family. In the midst of this routine, I discovered the joy of community and consistency.

Service helped me learn to slow down

During my stay in Kenya, I only learned a few phrases in Swahili, mostly picking up words from the kids as we ran around the playground. The most important of these phrases was pole, pole — “slowly, slowly.” I often heard adults calling out pole, pole to remind the children to slow down in the halls, but I also learned that this expression captured a way of life in this corner of rural Kenya.

Far from the dizzying speed of Boston, I learned to lose track of time with the kids on the farm; to walk slowly with teachers as we left the teachers’ lounge after morning tea; to greet others and pause for a conversation rather than rushing past. One of the teachers who had spent time in the U.S. observed that Americans often ask, “How are you?” without waiting to hear the response. That was one small way I could bring my experience home — by slowing long enough to wait for a reply. Pole, pole.

Service taught me to seek joy in simplicity

One of the most common questions the students asked me was, “What are the staple foods in your country?” I thought back to the college dining hall with its overwhelming array of culinary choice and struggled to identify a single staple dish in the American diet. By contrast, the school cafeteria served a rotation of ugali (a much-beloved dish made with cornmeal) with cooked cabbage, rice with beans, or rice and green grams (similar to lentils). Some days there were also bananas or mala, a fermented milk drink that is very popular in Kenya.

Every Friday, the guest volunteers were treated to fish and ugali for dinner, Phyllis’s favorite meal. I looked forward to Friday evenings, helping Phyllis in the kitchen and learning her story along the way. Dinner was a long, lingering affair on those nights and provided a welcome chance to connect with Lewa’s founder and other guests. Here again was a simple practice I could carry home with me: gathering friends for a simple meal and an evening of conversation to mark the end of a busy week.

Service taught me to seek connections at home

Having entered into a different way of life during my short stay at Lewa, I didn’t want to leave it all behind. When I returned home to the U.S., I sought ways to connect with my local community. My parish hosts a food pantry each Saturday for neighbors in need and I signed up to collect the weekly donation of produce and help assemble the bags of food. It was a great way to meet some new neighbors, and I also connected with other parishioners — welcome connections in our large, urban parish.

Since my time in Kenya, I have continued to seek new ways to connect with those around me. The Lewa family taught me lessons that have continued to quietly transform my daily routine. The children captured my heart and Phyllis captured my imagination by showing what is possible through love and dedication to something you believe in. Breaking out of my old routines and into a deeper, more connected way of living has changed the way I see the world, even though I’m back where I started.

Grotto quote graphic about what does volunteering teach you: "Breaking out of my old routines and into a deeper, more connected way of living has changed the way I see the world."

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