When I was a teenager, I went on some service trips. On one trip, I helped build houses for homeless families. On another trip, I babysat children while their parents received free medical care from doctors who volunteered their time. On another trip, I helped rebuild the roof of an orphanage that was in desperate need of repair. In every case, I believe these trips helped me more than I helped the people that I was there to serve.
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood with kind parents. They got divorced when I was seven, which was a bummer, but they both spent time with me after the divorce, and I never went hungry or lacked food or shelter as a child. We were not rich, but there was enough money for the occasional restaurant meal or vacation, and there were gifts under the tree every Christmas. We had heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. I always had clothes that fit and food that I enjoyed, and for a while, I assumed that everyone’s life was like that. Then I visited impoverished areas of this country and a few developing countries, and I realized that was far from the truth.
Compared to many people around the world, we were rich. I had no idea until I saw people walking barefoot in public in Ecuador because they could not afford shoes. I had no idea until I saw people holding a church service outdoors in Mexico because they lacked a building. I had no idea until I spent the night shivering in a family’s house in Albania because they could not afford heat, and the windows in their home were broken. I had no idea until that same family piled my plate high with food and watched me eat it because they gave it all to their guest and had nothing left for themselves. I had no idea until then that I was rich, and not everyone else was.
Those trips taught me life-changing truths. Not everyone has food to eat when they are hungry. Not everyone has a bed to sleep in, or shoes to wear, or heat in the winter. A bad hair day is not a bad day, and not having the trendiest clothes is not a real problem. Intellectually, I know all of this now, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a service trip, so it is easy for me to forget how spoiled I am and get sucked into the culture of materialism. It’s easy for me to get upset about things that don’t matter. It’s easy for me to think that I need certain “stuff” to be happy because that’s what magazines and commercials tell me. In a perfect world, I’d go on a service trip at least once a year to remind me not to be so selfish and to inspire me to help those who lack the things that I have an overabundance of. But I grew up, got a job, had kids and took on a mortgage and now I don’t go on service trips, I go on vacations. Recently, I’ve started looking at my kids and thinking that they grew up much as I did. They’ve had a comfortable life and never wanted for anything, except parents who stayed together. They need some perspective, just like I did.
My children are mature and sweet; they know I don’t have a lot of extra money, so they don’t ask for much. But I think that sometimes because we don’t have a lot of extra money, they feel like we are poor. They look at their friends with wealthy parents, who live in mansions, and get brand new cars on their seventeenth birthday, and they feel cheated. And it occurs to me in these moments that my kids have a first-world perspective. Their idea of “poor” is not poor. #parentingfail. I need to do better.
My children are nearly old enough to go on service trips, so perhaps I will take them on one someday. But we don’t need to get on a plane or get a passport to help. In our state, there are areas where poverty strikes hard. There are hungry people within driving distance and plenty of food banks where we could volunteer. Many families in the United States live below the poverty line, so surely there is some perspective to be gained at home. We donate to Toys for Tots and other charities in December, but people don’t suffer exclusively at Christmastime, so our generosity should not be reserved for December, either. I need to teach my children how fortunate we are, and I need to be reminded myself. We would all be well served by spending some time serving others.