A few weeks back I decided to start my search for a service project abroad. I went to a few women that work in student planning here at The International Studies Institute. Unfortunately I was told that all of the service projects that I would be able to participate in would need to be a full year or semester commitment. Knowing that it is halfway through the semester, it makes doing a community service project quite difficult. At first I felt a little set back being denied the opportunity to serve the community that I am staying in. Why would someone turn down free help?
As my meeting went on I understood that sometimes coming into a service situation and not having the correct training or the right skills can do more harm than good. One of the more well-known service organizations and opportunities that all Italians and even students know about happen at I Ragazzi di Sipario. This organization is actually a restaurant that solely employees people who are struggling with mental disabilities. My adviser recommended that instead of trying to go in there and help, that I go in and be a customer, that way I can observe and interact with the employees but not over step my bounds and make it harder on the workers. She also explained to me that many of the workers solely communicate off of sign language so just having me help out for a day would be pretty tough for everyone.
Right off the bat I thought this organization was a great idea. The thought of being able to not only keep these people busy on their day to day lives but give them the chance to make a living and be a productive member of society is great. Everyone feels good when they feel as though they are important and getting a job done—so I can only image how all of the employees at I Ragazzi di Sipario must feel after a day of work.
Last Tuesday for dinner, I went into I Ragazzi di Sipario and helped support the organization by sitting for dinner. I thought that it was going to be much busier than it was, so I was glad I came early on a week night. I think this was totally beneficial to the restaurant because I was the only table who had people at it at the time of night which was great because it kept the workers busy.
The restaurant was very low key – there was a small buffet where at the end an employee tossed the dish in the microwave. It seemed simple, but for the employees this was definitely a task for them. Smaller things for us are actually bigger things for these people and I hadn’t realized that until I was sitting at dinner. Of course I realized that it’s tougher for them to do some things but I never was appreciative of the small things am able to do on a day to day basis. Thinking back, this experience totally impacted me as an individual by opening my eyes to the smaller details in life that I didn’t regularly notice and it helped open my eyes to another part of the population that I never put much thought in.
I think the biggest key point that I took away from this experience is contextual support. I always felt that to make a difference or to help in a community you more or less have to go out of your way with a big project or maybe even a donation. I felt that you could just jump in head first and put in some labor hours for a day and you would have made a difference – but I now realize that supporting a cause as simple as getting dinner instead of just handing over some money to an organization, may do more good than I once thought. By sitting for dinner instead of just leaving 20 euro for dinner, we helped the organization evolve and give the employees some work to become better and to keep busy. Community service opens your eyes to things in other countries that you may not have appreciated before and helps support the reason why students go abroad – to learn and to appreciate other cultures, to mentally evolve and to grow as a person. Community service helps this process.
The photo I chose is actually from my night of observation. I decided this was the best way to depict my time because it proves that the organization really does live up to its end goal of keeping these citizens feeling good, employed and busy throughout the day. I think that many times organizations may advertise some false information so it was great being able to sit for dinner and experience it all myself. The quote “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Lillian Watson) pairs perfectly with this photo because sporadic labor help does not actually help an organization like this one, it does more damage. The first line stating “if you have come to help me, you are wasting my time” directly relates to the information that I stated earlier about my adviser informing me with how one day volunteer events in foreign countries don’t always work out the way you were expecting. Not knowing sign language would have created a large language barrier and by helping cook, serve and take care of customers we would have taken away the point of the organization away from the true people we were trying to help.