In third grade, my classmate Timmy Mitchell told me that in his family the kids were able to go anywhere in the world for their golden birthday. I decided that I would start that same tradition with my family. A golden birthday is the day you turn the age of your birth day. My daughter Madison had her golden birthday this year when she turned 11 on September 11. After much thought, Madison decided she wanted to go to Bali. Her decision was based in part on the beautiful pictures and videos of Bali she had seen, and the opportunity to volunteer with children through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). IVHQ is a large nonprofit that partners with local nonprofits, offering a wide range of volunteer opportunities around the world.
In Bali, IVHQ partners with Green Lion, a local nonprofit. Our family enrolled in their kindergarten program as classroom assistants. We were all very excited about the opportunity to work with young children. Yet, when we arrived, we learned that there had been a mix-up and we were scheduled to teach English to 5th and 6th graders, leading classrooms…on our own! I was stressed about the change but kept telling myself that we were here to serve the community in whatever way was needed.
Since we were now leading the class as teachers, we needed to plan activities for each day. We began our mornings with lesson planning in the Green Lion learning lab. In many ways, the lesson planning was tougher than the actual teaching. Green Lion hosts volunteers from all over the world, during our time there, we were with about 50 other volunteers. Each morning approximately half of the volunteers would be waiting for a spot at one of the three computers in the lab. We would labor over creating lesson plans and activities all-the-while battling with computer crashes, printers that didn’t work, and ants marching across the screens and keyboards. Our challenges were tough but always well worth it and they prepared us for an incredible experience with the children.
Our school was a 45-minute drive from Green Lion on roads that wove through a maze of beautiful rice terraces, small villages, and vernacular architecture reflecting thousands of years of local tradition. The school had a classroom for each grade 1-6 and there were approximately 20 students per classroom. The students spoke very little English. Throughout the week we taught them basic words and concepts through worksheets and games. Madison and her step-sister Alanna brought letters from each of their 5th grade classes to the students and they, in turn, wrote letters back along with their addresses in case anyone wanted to become pen pals. We taught them about nature and talked about the harmful effects of trash, which unfortunately covers most streets of this beautiful country. We ended one of our days with a trash clean up. The kids ran around the school, each group trying to outdo the other. I was so proud of their enthusiasm and commitment that at the end, when I looked in one of the bags and saw big piles of leaves mixed in with the trash, I realized that some of the lessons we taught were lost in translation!
What wasn’t lost however was the human connection between our family and people we would ordinarily never have a chance to meet. Travel broadened our perspectives and stretched our comfort zones. Rick Steves, travel teacher extraordinaire, says traveling makes us better citizens of the planet. In an article he wrote for Rotary Magazine, Steves talks about traveling being a force for peace and a political act. He talks about how travel bridges understanding and that “The most valuable souvenir is empathy for the other 96 percent of humanity.” The idea that travel can be a conduit for peace and understanding is incredibly profound and is something I have experienced throughout my travels. We learned on this trip was when we added service to our travels, the experience became truly transformational.
Over the years I’ve shared my dream of having my child take a trip for their golden birthday to many people, I am now often asked if the trip was a “dream come true?” As I reflect on this question, I am brought back to a conversation Madison and I had after a few days of teaching. We were walking down a dirt road, hand in hand, talking about our day when she looked up at me and said: “Where will we serve next time?”. This was the moment my dream truly came true.