Sleeping late, playing the latest video games, meeting friends at the mall…that’s what a teen’s summer is all about, right? Then how did I find myself painted from head-to-toe, dangling from a roof top by a rope, in a town full of strangers, without a bed or TV (much less a PS2) to call my own? So begins my summer 2009 volunteer trip to Sullivan, Illinois.
Most people think that life-changing travel experiences only happen in exotic places steeped in history and beauty; picture a stroll near the Trevi Fountain in Rome or a trek up Mt. Everest. My trip, however, to a small, southern Illinois town tops all of those locales, and left me irrevocably changed and grateful. To get there, I had to volunteer endless hours flipping pancakes, selling flowers, raking leaves, and doing a variety of odd jobs that only a teen with little concern about what others think about him could accomplish. Months of fund raising later, I found myself on a bus with 73 other teens and a few brave and hardy chaperones headed for a town we knew existed only because Map Quest told us so. Upon arriving in Sullivan, we were herded into the school gymnasium, shown the cafeteria, and instructed that our first full day would begin sharply at 6:45am. We woke to the sound of our leader blasting an ear-drum-shredding air horn over the P.A. system and were given our assignments. I found myself on a crew with 5 other teens and 1 adult (from Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin), strangers to me until this moment. Our mission: to sand, prime and paint the home of an 89 year-old widow in 3 days. With this goal in mind, we headed out with only a paint brush, a scraper, the desire to do good, and a smile on our faces.
Mrs. Roberts greeted us, showed us around her yard and spent the next 2 hours telling us her life story… two children, her husband a WW I veteran who died 13 years ago, chronic respiratory problems and very poor vision. Over the next few days, we worked many hours rehabbing the house, sharing our own life stories, laughing and sometimes crying in the process. When we tired of the job, the hot sun, or the ache in our arms, we humored ourselves by painting each other instead of the house, or rapelling down the side of the house, tied at the waist with a rope and a prayer.
Then the day of reckoning came… As the widow inspected our work, the smile on her face grew until it was as bright as the sun shining down on us. She could not stop admiring her newly repainted house and repeated over and over, “Oh my heavens, thank you”. This response alone, the gratitude of another human being for our hard work made my working vacation worthwhile. Just seeing the appreciation on her face warmed my heart. I knew that at that moment I had made a difference in somebody’s life.
Yeah, other friends went on more exotic vacations with far more luxuries than I had. They probably even came home with a few trinkets to show their friends. I venture to say, however, that none experienced the same “warm fuzzies” I did when Mrs. Roberts realized what we had done for her. The knowledge that I had positively impacted someone’s life through the giving of myself was the only souvenir I needed to make the summer of 2009 one like no other. Because of this experience, I plan to make volunteerism a summer vacation tradition.
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