The Value of Perspective

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Laguna Beach High School teacher Mindy Hawkins and her husband have taken more than 380 high school students on service and adventure expeditions to Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Dominican Republic and Ecuador since 2009. Many of the students are from Laguna Beach, but some are siblings, cousins or social media friends from all over the United States.

Laguna Beach High School teacher Mindy Hawkins with a group of students in Kenya. Photos courtesy of Mindy Hawkins.

The first trip was intended to expose students to another culture, to serve the “less fortunate” and instill gratitude in our group, Hawkins reflected in an article she wrote for the Rocket Ready program at LBHS. Her goal was to help the Laguna Beach students recognize the easy privileges in their lives and to see that possessions don’t define or necessarily bring one joy.

“The most important thing we can do for our kids is to present the reality of other’s lives,” Hawkins said in a phone interview.

“The children in Kenya are happy playing soccer in the street with an empty plastic bottle, and they are excited when we arrive with gifts and soccer balls, but they are not ‘happier.’ The soccer balls pop, and the donations are dispersed. Their happiness is not based on the gifts but on their inner joy,” she said.

LBHS teacher Mindy Hawkins bonds with children in Tanzania.

Hawkins’ first trip—she makes the itineraries and travel arrangements herself—was to a home for disabled children in Cusco Peru. “I quickly realized that I was naive in my expectation of what an orphanage in a developing country would look, smell and sound like. Children were wailing and rocking back and forth; some were banging their heads against the wall. There were pots on the floor for the children to urinate in, piles of laundry outside to be scrubbed in dirty buckets of water and hungry children waiting for us to spoon-feed them,” she wrote. Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, they rode the bus back to their lodgings, where she convened a meeting and apologized to the students, acknowledging that the experience was far outside their comfort zones. She promised to find an alternative opportunity for the group. To her astonishment, the kids said they wanted to go back, that they wanted to work with the children at the orphanage for the duration of the trip. A week later they wept as they said goodbye. “This was my first experience in saying goodbye to people we loved intensely and knew we would never see again. We left knowing that nothing had changed for them, they would still spend their days scrubbing clothes in a dirty tub, wailing and rocking, but we had felt love and given love and we were changed,” Hawkins wrote.

Teacher Mindy Hawkins with LBHS students in the Dominican Republic.

Students learn of Hawkins’ trips by word of mouth. She holds a meeting for students and their parents and explains how uncomfortable travel to third world countries can be. “Sometimes lunch is two hours late and it’s a pot of boiled goat meat; sometimes there are no showers, or they’re freezing cold,” she cautions students. Parents are asked to sign waivers and when they ask about her ability to “guarantee” their kid’s safety, she said, “I tell them I certainly cannot guarantee your kids will be safe, but I won’t come home alive without them.” Some students decide they don’t want to go on a trip after the meeting; she tells them “maybe next year.” Even so, a lottery is often used because more kids sign up than they can take. This year, Hawkins’ will require the students earn 10 percent of the cost of the trip themselves.

Those who have taken a trip with Hawkins have worked at orphanages, built greenhouses in rural villages, painted schools, tutored in English, educated on menstruation hygiene, girls’ personal protection and consent, and distributed clothing, school supplies and laptops.

Student Quinn Bulloch has taken two trips with Hawkins this year. “I can easily say that both trips were probably the best experiences of my life. There’s just something about going to another country with a large group of random kids, none of whom you have met, and spending two consecutive weeks serving the people there,” she said by email. Quinn has done multiple service trips in her life. She says they inspired her to think about how she can be of use at home in Laguna Beach. She described the trips as “a shared trauma of being thrown into a new situation which makes you uncomfortable but ends up bonding the group.” The adventure side of her trips included zip lining over waterfalls, jumping off cliffs and snorkeling through tunnels. “They are memories I know I will never forget. I’m forever grateful for everything Mindy Hawkins has allowed me to experience. It’s because of her I was able to make my favorite memories and build relationships with my closest friends,” Quinn concluded.

On a trip in Kenya, Hawkins she said asked the teacher whether it would make a difference discussing consent and protection with the teenaged girls when their life circumstances would not change. The teacher assured her that empowering the girls with the knowledge that there were other girls in the world who were aware of them and living lives of freedom would encourage them to keep moving forward. In every country Hawkins has visited, she wrote “the youth were fighting for their education, recognizing that it was their only way out of poverty, the only way to improve their situation.”

Children in Kennedy’s Orphanage in Tanzania.

In Nepal, a group of teenage girls told her how much they wished they could go to school in America. She told them that in America, many students suffer from anxiety and depression, that there are school shootings and suicides. The Nepalese girls were incredulous and wondered what American teenagers could possibly have to worry about when their education was free and they had multiple meals each day, safe passage anywhere they wanted to go and opportunities for growth, travel and careers, plus freedom of choice with respect to religion and relationships. How the American girls could be unhappy, she wrote, seemed unfathomable to those girls who are living without any of those privileges.

 Hawkins and LBHS students in Nepal with the organization Day for Girls, which provides feminine hygiene kits to girls.

After a decade, Hawkins has found that all of the donations, teaching and service have had very little long-term impact on the living conditions in the places they’ve visited. The true value of our travel is in the human connection, she wrote. “Our hearts are changed and their lives are enriched as they feel ‘valued’ and ‘seen’ by others in the world.”

Each trip she said she fears that her heart has broken too many times when saying goodbye to the kids and the adults they’ve grown to love in so short a time. Her biggest take-away, she wrote, is that human beings are all more alike than different, and that the greatest humanitarian service we can provide is connecting on the basis of our similarities in human nature and by working side by side to effect change.

“Every year at the end of the trip, I say it was my last, but then…it changes,” she said. “This year we’ll probably go back to Kenya. We can really teach there because most all the students understand and speak English.

See below for Hawkins’ complete transcript of her work:

“For the past ten years, my husband and I have taken groups of high school students to developing countries on service/ adventure expeditions. We have worked at homes for disabled children, built greenhouses in rural villages, painted schools, tutored in English, educated on menstruation hygiene, personal protection and consent, distributed hundreds of DAYS FOR GIRLS kits, clothing, school supplies, soccer equipment, and laptops. When we embarked on our first trip, it was with the intent to expose students to another culture, to serve “less fortunate”, and instill gratitude in our group. On our first day, as we entered the home for disabled children in Cusco Peru, I quickly realized that I was naive in my expectation of what an orphanage in a developing country would look, smell, and sound like. Children were wailing and rocking back and forth; some were banging their heads against the wall. There were pots on the floor for the children to urinate in, piles of laundry outside to be scrubbed in dirty buckets of water, hungry children waiting for us to spoon-feed them. We were exhausted and overwhelmed, as we rode the public bus home, crammed in amongst strangers, I wondered what I was doing. We had a group meeting and I apologized to the students, acknowledging that we were in over our heads, and assuring them that I would find an alternative opportunity for us. These amazing kids rallied and said that they wanted to go back, that they wanted to serve and work with these kids at this home for the duration of our trip. By the end of the week, we were so connected to the toothless old woman who ran the kitchen, to the children with their crooked smiles and loving hearts, we wept bitterly as we said goodbye. This was my first experience in saying goodbye to people we loved intensely and knew we would never see again. We left knowing that nothing had changed for them, they would still spend their days scrubbing clothes in a dirty tub, wailing and rocking, but we had felt love and given love and we were changed. Over the course of the past ten years, 8 countries, 280+ student travelers, I have learned that we are all more alike than different, that the greatest humanitarian service we can provide is connecting on the basis of our human nature and similarities, and work side by side to effect change.

Over the years we have connected and loved the people of Peru, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Nicaragua, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. We have found that all of our donations, teaching, and service have very little long term impact on their living conditions. The true value of our travel is in human connection. Our hearts are changed, and their lives are enriched as they feel “valued” and “seen” by others in the world. In Kenya, I asked the teacher whether it will really make a difference for us to discuss consent and protection with the Kenyan teenage girls when their life circumstances will not change. She assured me that empowering the girls with the knowledge that there were other girls in the world who were aware of them and living lives of freedom would encourage these girls to keep moving forward. In every country, the youth were fighting for their education, recognizing that it was their only way out of poverty, the only way to improve their situation. In Nepal, a group of teenage girls were telling me how much they wish they could come to America to go to school. When I told them that in America many of our students suffer from anxiety and depression, that we have school shootings and suicides, they were incredulous. What could our youth possibly have to worry about? They have free education, multiple meals each day, safe passage anywhere they might want to go, every opportunity available for growth, travel, career, religion, and relationships. Unhappiness seems unfathomable to those who are living without any of these privileges.

Each trip I fear that my heart has broken too many times as we say goodbye to people and children that we have grown to love in so short a time. I also grapple with the concept of how to serve in communities without marginalizing them with a “white savior” perception. In my early travels, I wanted the Laguna Beach students to feel deep gratitude for all that they had and the easy privileges of their lives, but over the years I have come to hope that they recognize that nothing that they “have” brings them joy or defines them. The children in Kenya are happily playing soccer in the street with an empty plastic bottle, they are excited by our arrival and gifts of soccer balls, but they are not “happier”. The soccer balls pop, the donations we bring are dispersed, but their happiness is not based on the gifts, but on their inner joy. The opportunity to expand our horizons, and embrace the cultures and communities where we travel, is the core of pure education.

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