Written by volunteer MK Hunter:
When you talk to people who have come home from a mission or volunteer trip, they often throw around words like “life-changing” and expect that you know what they mean, that you nod sagely and agree. It’s the sort of phrase that you grow to associate with that sort of work. Even people who’ve never gone on one of these trips start to say it—they know that it’s “life-changing”—even if they don’t know what that change really means. Everyone knows that’s how it works. It doesn’t matter why; it’s life-changing. But in the end, they’re just words. You can’t know what that means—what it really means—until you’ve been there yourself, until you’ve felt it yourself. You just can’t.
When I made the Random Acts Dreams2Acts team, I had a lot of people telling me that it would be a “life-changing experience.” I knew that that was the label people put on it, and try as I might to avoid it I began to develop expectations as to what was in front of me. And as those expectations grew, I began to think that I understood, that I knew what I was going to experience. I thought that it might be profound, that it might make me appreciate the things in my life more, that it might make me feel like a different person, a better one, or that it might change the way that I looked at the world. I knew that it was going to be something important.
But I couldn’t begin to imagine the truth.
There is no real way to put into words what it was to be a part of this experience—that’s why people can’t understand when they hear the stories, that’s why we have to fall back on vague and generic labels of self-importance like “life-changing,” because while it is technically true, the term can’t even begin to cover what it really feels like. If I rambled for days, unceasing, until my fingers could no longer type and your eyes could not take in another word, I still would feel that I had fallen short of capturing the true essence of what this trip meant to me. But what I can do is try and describe the most monumental differences between what my life was before this trip, when years were marked by “A.D” and not “A.N” (After Nicaragua), because they are in fact separate epochs. If my life was a fossil record, the week that I spent in San Juan del Sur with Random Acts and the people of the Sister City Project and the Free High School, the week where I learned new things about myself and formed improbably strong bonds and new friendships that I knew within hours would last for the rest of my life…that week would be the turning point, the demarcation between the old and the new world order. It would be the extinction of the dinosaurs, the eruption of Vesuvius, the fall of Rome. If I were fictional, it would be my Character Defining Moment. So what are the biggest differences between my life in A.D. 2015 and my life now, in A.N Year 0?
A.D. 2015: Despite over 7 years of public school Spanish classes, I lacked the ability to properly communicate in Spanish or any real motivation to learn the language, despite its obvious real-world applications. Logically, I would love to be fluent in Spanish, but there was no actual drive to work for it.
A.N. 0: Impressed by the latent understanding of Spanish buried deep in the recesses of my brain and the immediate bond that formed when the local people of San Juan del Sur realized I could understand at least part of what they were saying and the immense warmth of their friendship, I vowed to re-apply myself to studying because when I returned (read: “when,” not “if”) I wanted to be able to properly express myself in order to truly and completely reciprocate their kindness and friendship, without hesitation, without limitation.
A.D. 2015: Despite a passionate love of travel and experiencing new places, I had never considered for more than a few brief, fleeting moments actually leaving my life in the United States behind and moving to another country to help, to volunteer, to teach. I would never; I could never. How could I stand to leave my cats? They would be miserable, and I would be too.
A.N. 0: I could just get a friend to look in on my cats every few days and leave food out for them. They would be totally fine if I left for a month or two—what sort of Visa do I have to apply for? How much are plane tickets?
A.D. 2015: Do people who are colorblind know that they’re seeing the world with pieces of it missing? Do they miss the colors that they’ve never seen, or can you not miss something that you’ve never experienced for yourself?
A.N. 0: Have you ever seen those videos of people with colorblindness trying on the expensive glasses that allow them to see the full spectrum of colors visible to the human eye? Nicaragua was in Amazing Technicolor, vibrant and green and blue and red and gold. And then the glasses came back off and the world went back to muted shades of sepia and gray…but now I know that there’s more.
A.D. 2015: I didn’t have sisters.
A.N. 0: I have two.