Over SAS’ annual interim semester, high schoolers had one week where they embarked on different types of adventures all around the world as well as in Singapore. These trips are categorized into three different categories: global studies, eco-adventure and service learning. It is a mandatory requirement that each student takes at least one service learning trip across their four years. With these trips carrying students to every destination from South Africa to Orchard Road, there are quite a few options to choose from. But in SAS. what really is a service trip?
This past February, I had the opportunity to go to the Philippines for a service learning trip that took place in the capital city of Manila, as well as in a small town by the name of Puerto Galera. We spent the first day in Manila visiting two different government-sponsored shelters for street children. Here we got a tour of the shelter, interacted with the children, and got a first-hand account of the different obstacles they’ve faced in their lives.
Two days later we took a boat to Puerto Galera where we would be staying with the Stairway Foundation, a non-governmental organization founded by Lars C. Jorgensen and Monica D. Ray. Stairway has dedicated itself to serving as an alternative program to the all-too-often exploited street children in the Philippines. As opposed to the traditional acts of building houses and teaching children activities that often take place in such service trips, we spent almost every hour interacting with these children. Whether it was making bracelets, going out for dinner, washing dishes or going snorkeling in the ocean, everything we did was with the Stairway boys by our side. By the time we had to leave back to Singapore, every SAS kid knew every Stairway boy by name. We knew their different hobbies and a great deal about their personality. The bonds we formed with these boys were something I had never imagined going into the trip. Despite all of this, I boarded the flight back to Singapore thinking to myself, how did we help these kids?
Aside from bringing donation bags full of our old clothes and used books that could have easily been shipped over, I felt like we had done everything we would’ve done on a trip under the global studies or eco-adventure category, aside from the fact that the boys were with us while we did these things. Here is where we have to differentiate direct service and what is labeled as “service learning”. Direct service is when an individual or group does something that directly benefits the people in need. Service learning is a concept branching from the idea that people can learn a lot and be more grateful of what they have by working with and interacting with people who have less than they do. I would definitely categorize this trip under that umbrella.
Given my surprise that we were not directly helping these kids, I thought about whether or not this was a common theme among the other service interim trips that SAS has to offer. Talia Turpaz, a sophomore this year, also went to the Philippines on a service trip in her freshman year for the service club Gawad Kalinga. “I decided to go to GK because I was already in the service club and if I was going to help anyone, I wanted it to be people I feel a connection to. We also did direct service though. We spent a few hours each day building walls and tiles that would improve the overall setting of the GK center.” The fact that the group of SAS students who go on the GK trip each year do, in fact, use their time to manually build something that could benefit the foundation shows that there is a substantial amount of direct service involved. Although I have certain questions on whether or not this was just to give a sense of exposure to the students, rather than to actually enhance the infrastructure, it is nice to see our students doing something that they can honestly say made the lives of local inhabitants “better.”
Although I have certain questions on whether or not this was just to give a sense of exposure to the students, rather than to actually enhance the infrastructure, it is nice to see our students doing something that can honestly say made the lives of local inhabitants “better.”
In no way do I intend on criticizing the way SAS goes about service learning or direct service. I truly believe that the interaction gained from students from other sides of the spectrum with entirely different experiences enriches both parties. I am also eternally grateful for the experience I had in Puerto Galera with the exceptional group of boys from the Stairway Foundation. Whether direct service or indirect service learning is the best for someone is ultimately up to them. But the questioning of our impact on the communities that we serve is always a valid one.