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Our pursuit in India was focused on service. While each of the 10 of us ACE volunteers came with a separate background, school experience and sports skill set, we all came with the singular goal to serve. This then begs the question – what is service? And – what is service in India? What is service in the context of Vidya School and Earth Saviors Foundation?

On our final day in India, we all sat around in a circle in the home base with the lights off. At first we looked at Bela, the India Program Manager, and Katie, the India Program Specialist, with skepticism. Then, Bela handed us each a candle and a lighter. She instructed us to go around the circle and light each candle as we shared something that frustrated us about the trip.

In the second round, we went around and shared something that we took away from the trip, the best moment, and we could then blow out the candle. In this exercise both our frustrations and our triumphs reflected either a mismatch or pairing of the sense of responsibility we had to serve and then the tangibility of our service while there. Our discussion allowed us to answer and continue to ponder the question – what is service? While I think that we each had our own, individual, conception of service, I found myself continuing to circle back to this idea of tangibility.

In everything that we commit our time to, not just service, but our work anywhere, in any discipline, we yearn to feel and see the effects of our efforts. This tangibility allows us to quantify our sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and responsibility for what we did or how we helped. While I know that it is seen as selfish to conduct service for personal returns, it is inevitable. And I do not think that that is a bad thing. We all took three weeks out of our summer to travel to India to immerse ourselves in the Indian culture with the aim to experience some sort of beneficial exchange with the citizens. From the students at Vidya School to the patients and residents at Earth Saviors, we hoped that we could somehow touch them in a way that would affect their lives.

She said that you may never know fully how you have touched someone’s life, but impact is always there whether tangible or not.

Between our service at Vidya School and Earth Saviors, some of our work was easy to see. We painted and decorated the dormitories at Earth Saviors and in this case, we could see a difference in how we brightened up their living space. However, with respect to teaching English and coaching at Vidya School, it was a lot harder to measure the impact our teaching had on the students there in our three-week engagement. I think that a lot of us, including me, found this intangibility to be discomforting.

This theme of the impact of service was one of the main threads of our final discussion after blowing out our candles. Bela was keen to end our discussion by sharing a story of one of her first volunteers in India. A woman had come as a marine engineer along with two teachers many years back and found it difficult to connect her work to much of her teaching and interactions in India. She felt as though she had made little to no impact as compared to the two teachers whose backgrounds had prepared them for their service. However, many years later, Bela ran into one of the students from this particular work assignment and she was so excited to share that she had decided to pursue a career in marine engineering, a concept that would have been so foreign to them if it had not been for the exposure to the one volunteer many years back.

Bela shared this story to comfort us and explain the reality of impactful service. She said that you may never know fully how you have touched someone’s life, but impact is always there whether tangible or not.

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