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Center for Social Concerns


Reflections from Returned Volunteers

Trish Tierney
November 12, 1996

Just before I left for Namibia, a friend of mine from Notre Dame took me out to lunch. He asked me, "Are you sure you want to go? Aren't you scared that you will change?"

Luckily, many of the people at Notre Dame, especially at the CSC, saw change rather differently. They encouraged me to seek it out and by so doing helped me begin an unforgettable experience.

I lived for a year in a village called Baumgartsbrunn. There were about 300 people there, and the closest town was two hours away by hitchhiking. On the surface, to an untrained, Western eye like mine, there wasn't a whole lot going on.

I remember being shown around the school that first day. I was nervous and felt strange in this place that would be my home. I looked about at the way the hot wind kicked up the dust, noted the silence which seemed to go on and on and on. I saw the broken windows and dirt floors.

As one of the teachers gave me a tour of the classes something broke the silence of the day. I stood in the courtyard and watched as everyone in school, teacher and student alike, put down their books and stepped outside. Every face turned skyward. It was an airplane. Everyone gazed at a passing airplane. No one rushed through the moment. Teachers didn't shoo children back to their lessons. Kids didn't start running around. No one went back inside until the sound and the smoke of the plane were totally passed. What struck me most was how no one rushed through the moment.

Do you know what I thought to myself, on that first day in my new home? I said to myself: Wow, these people must be really bored!

Well, a year later, my face was one of those that turned up toward airplanes. I could sit for hours talking about the shape of a cloud or the chance for a good rain. I had learned a lesson, one among many, from my community. I learned to feel wonder at all things, big and small, shiny and mundane. I learned to take in and enjoy the present.

I went to Namibia to be a teacher, but in reality I was a student much more of the time. I had teachers of every age in my village, and each one taught me to see things differently. Words I thought I knew the meaning of when I arrived, - words like community, sharing, joy, sacrifice - were redefined for me during that year. It is only by stepping away from the secure and familiar that we can expand the walk of our lives. By living with people different from us, our own lives become richer. I gave my Namibian friends what I had to offer -- my work, my faith in them. In return, they gave me a new view of life.

Many people return from their a year or more of service and find it difficult to incorporate that time into their lives back in the U.S. That has become one of the biggest challenges of service work for me. It is important to bring those lessons back and to share them with others. Service work is not an experience to be folded up and boxed away. It should be incorporated into daily thoughts and actions. In Namibia, I taught the teachers English so that they could teach their students. Likewise, I feel they trained me in their ways so that I could teach others about it.

My friends from Notre Dame have been my network in this respect. My roommates who volunteered in Seattle, in Chicago and in Northern Ireland have been willing listeners. They have also shared their experiences with me. It is a continual process of learning and teaching. What we all share from our experiences is a renewed wonder and respect for how other people live. It is a great thing to be able to recognize the beauty in a cloud, the sound of a new language, or even the passing of an airplane overhead.


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