The Luxury of Being Able to Serve

I wake up each morning with the luxury of a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, and a shower with warm water. I walk to campus, where I take classes in the departments of English and Women and Gender Studies. I have the good fortune to be studying what I am passionate about, instead of working for a degree that I hate but one that will earn me the most money down the road.

I have chosen a career as a writer, and that is a choice I have stuck with since I was eight years old. And although strangers have the audacity to question my choice, my family never has. Yes, I have had to work to earn the faith of my parents, but I am lucky to be allowed that chance to fight to be who I want to be in this world.

I have not been thrown the obstacles that a lower socio-economic status can induce. I have not had assumptions made about me based on the color of my skin that lead to my getting arrested, threatened, or not hired.

When I went to Brownsville, Texas for an Alternative Winter Break trip in January, I found myself growing more aware of these reasons to be grateful. It all started when I took a shower the first night there and felt freezing cold water pour down on me. The hot water never kicked in, and I imagined my Higher Power laughing at me. “Jules, don’t you remember last year?”

On an Alternative Spring Break trip to Pittsburgh last year, my fellow participants and I showered at the YMCA. The showers in the Women’s locker room were completely open. There were no stalls, no curtains, no nothing. Up until that point, I had never showered fully naked with another person in close proximity, except for childhood baths. Plus, after the anxiety-filled showers, I got to walk two blocks in the snow back to where we were staying.

In Brownsville, we were staying at a church where the bathroom was a thirty-second walk from the room we slept in. The showers were made up of glass stalls; that although slightly see-through, allowed a good degree of privacy. So, as I shivered under the icy water, I prayed to my Higher Power. “Thank you for the privacy. For the proximity. And for the clean water.”

That week, I learned how to become grateful for cold showers. I also learned how to cook orange chicken, use a paint roller efficiently, and weed a garden. I found out what it was like to do service on thirty minutes of sleep and how to communicate with smiles instead of words. I was humbled when I was asked to spend half my week cutting up construction paper to make Dr. Seuss Cat hats. 

As my group huddled around a table with scissors and piles of paper, we asked ourselves, “What are we doing here?” We were volunteering at a literacy center that provides English as a Second Language classes to the immigrants and their children. Mexico is a ten-minute drive away, and Brownsville has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation.

We questioned our value to the organization. Were we really helping them? Or were we wasting their time? Only three of us on the trip could speak Spanish, and those three were in the classroom with the students. Honestly, we felt useless, and I questioned the point of driving 19 hours and asking my parents to pay a few hundred dollars for this trip.

That was until I took a look around and realized they only had three full-time staff members. One of them came to speak to us about the center’s mission during lunch, and she admitted that if we weren’t making these Dr. Seuss hats now, the staff wouldn’t have time to do so until June. These hats were for a celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March, where each child would get to wear a hat and create a positive memory associated with reading.

To the staff of the literacy center, we WERE making a difference. They encouraged us to decorate the inner walls of the center, and a little unsure but still motivated regardless, we did our best to prove to them that they had made the right choice in letting us volunteer for them. And on our last day, I walked down the hallway of the center and couldn’t help but smile when I saw the paper cranes hanging from the ceiling and the giant caterpillar that spelled out BROWNSVILLE LITERARCY CENTER. There was an overwhelming amount of color lighting up the white walls and in the best way possible.

Maybe the next group of volunteers that came in after us couldn’t speak Spanish either, but because we got the Dr. Seuss hats and decorating out of the way, they could help organize the offices that probably hadn’t been cleaned in months. They could clean the toys in the classrooms, so that no child got sick after playing with them. Or go into the preschooler’s classroom, like I did one day, and just hang out with the kids.

It was hard to accept that all I could do for those little boys was make them smile, but when I thought about it, I considered that there may not be a lot of Americans they meet that smile at them.

In the end, it was worth driving 19 hours to Brownsville because I learned that there are places in every community that desperately need any help they can get and that I shouldn’t pass up the chance to do service at these places just because I feel my impact won’t be large enough. Because it’s not about me—it’s about the people who don’t have the same luxuries as I do.

-Jules Wilson