One of the perks of attending a public university is our longer summers, giving more time for leisure before the academic year began. Yet ironically, one of the cons of attending a public university is our longer summers, as the last few weeks are filled with enviously watching Snapchat stories of people experiencing their first day of college while you wait another month. Having just finished my on-campus job and moving into my new apartment, I was left with not knowing how to spend the next few weeks of vacation before the fall quarter began. Home was out of the question, and as much as I love my friends, I wanted to spend my summer doing something unique. I had all the time in the world to independently pursue whatever I wanted -- a feeling my typically rigid schedule is not accustomed to.
After my first year of college ended, I was comfortable. I made new friends, studied hard, and found organizations and activities that made my heart full. I made it through extremely difficult circumstances, and the tunnel was pointed toward my second year of college. However, comfort can be dangerous, and I quickly found myself wanting to use my talents, time, and treasures for causes greater than my own. I heard what was going on in Louisiana with the floods, and knew it was time to do more than post a Facebook status stating my thoughts and prayers. On an impromptu decision made possible by a Southwest travel voucher, endless cups of coffee, and an incredible organization called All Hands, I soon found myself in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, helping with disaster relief.
I entered the space with the notion of wanting to genuinely help others, and to have my actions match the words I so passionately preach. Yet, in the span of five days, I learned more about service, resilience, and teamwork than I learned in a year of college. Check out the top lessons that Baton Rouge, Louisiana taught this Southern California dreamer.
1. It is about progress, not product. I only spent five days in Louisiana, one in which I spent the majority of the day traveling from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It would be crazy to think that in those five days, the entire city would be rebuilt, businesses would begin again, and families would be able to recover their possessions. Although I wish it would be that simple, it's time to unlearn the hypercapitalistic belief that we need to produce as much as we can within the limits of the day, with the least amount of causalities possible. Rebuilding takes time. Healing takes time. Growth takes time. It was never about products, perfection, or performances, but rather raw, humbling progress.
Often embedded in the quest for collective liberation is the fight for personal redemption. Movements are often personal, deeply rooted in the fight for reclaiming identities and creating progressive change within yourself. I came to Louisiana with the motive of helping others, but also finding peace within myself toward my anxiety, insecurity, and the personality I have been socially conditioned to hate. It will take more than five days in a different state to rebuild a city, and it will take more than five days to rebuild and reclaim my identities. I am a work in progress, a fluid being who is constantly learning and unlearning, building and tearing down, transforming and conserving. A week in the South can catalyze the change I want to see within myself and my communities, but it's going to take time, and I need to be okay with knowing I can't solve the world's problems in a day.
2. Stories are everywhere, if we have the strength to seek them. I spent the week volunteering with All Hands, an organization that focuses on emergency relief efforts globally. During the time spent volunteering, we gutted the homes of the people impacted by the flood - clearing out drywall and insulation, removing tile, and getting the home ready for rebuilding. What was more remarkable than the actual work we were doing was being able to hear the stories of the families impacted by the floods.
We met Wendy, a longtime resident of Denham Springs, Louisiana. During the flood, she was taking care of her autistic son before they were rescued by boat. In the wake of the traumatic events, Wendy's mom suffered five heart attacks in five days, and while they were being rescued, the boat tipped over - causing Wendy's mom and Wendy's husband to break their arms and shoulders. They just lost everything they cared about, and yet were still so resilient, kind, and appreciative of whatever help we could offer. What excuse do I have when trials come my way, when people like Wendy have gone through incredible changes in a shocking short amount of time yet still possess a resilient spirit?
Wendy was one of the countless inspiring stories that we heard while working on the homes, but you do not have to fly to Louisiana to still be transformed by the narratives of others. Often in progressive spaces, it's easy to forget the value of sitting down to listen, but at the heart of all social movements lies the notion of people sharing common experiences and pushing for collective change. Stories are everywhere, if we have the consciousness and willingness to listen.
3. There is beauty in challenging yourself beyond what you think you're capable of. Before coming to this trip, I never did as much as hold a hammer. Being unversed in basic construction skills, it was easy to feel inadequate alongside the individuals who did this work for a living. However, with the friendliness and kindness of the All Hands volunteers and staff, I gained the confidence to push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of originally doing. I went from not knowing how to take a nail out of a wall to completely tearing down walls of drywall, all within the span of a few days. When there wasn't a specific job to do, we made one, so we were constantly busying ourselves to clear as many homes as possible.
Although my doubts were intimidating, this week showed me that I had nothing to worry about. Volunteering requires 100% of every volunteer, and it was comforting knowing that it is okay to not know how to complete every task. Collective liberation requires collective participation, and I wouldn't have been able to experience this incredible week if I didn't go outside what's comfortable.
As my week in Baton Rouge comes to an end and I prepare for my journey back to California, it is with ultimate gratitude that I take these lessons back to my hometown to create community-based change. I came into this space wanting to help others, but in the process, I gained a new family, developed new skills, and reaffirmed my passion for public service.