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Thursday, June 01, 2023 — Houston, TX

Service teaches gratitude, perspective

By Michelle Phillips     3/19/09 7:00pm

The sun was at just the wrong angle for driving, glaring straight into my eyes until they felt dry as splintered wood. Just to keep awake, I forced my eyes open wide enough for them to fall out of their sockets; yet the world still passed me by in a blur, and it would be another half-hour ride to the church down the narrow, winding streets of Merida before breakfast; the only good news of the morning was that I was not driving. This was going to be a long day.

All through the morning, I was sullen and taciturn, too tired to be excited about being in Mexico. Repainting our host church wasn't exactly how we'd planned our Alternative Spring Break; I would have preferred playing with children or something that felt more useful, but the church badly needed touch-up. Painting didn't require any brainpower, though, so as my brush traced the walls and window bars lifelessly, my mind started working through all the homework I should have been getting done, the work I had tossed and turned all night in the hammock worrying about. What was I thinking, coming to Mexico? How am I going to catch up on work?

That night, our host took my roommate and I to her sister's house, and we visited with their family. As we sat, the sister came up to me, handed me some newly-bought sheets, and insisted, despite my confusion, "For you." My hand flew to my mouth in astonishment: Knowing that I was having trouble sleeping, they bought sheets for me. I hardly knew what to say; I could only manage to accept their gift with a pathetic "Gracias."

I looked around at their beaming faces and was struck with a pang of guilt. Their meals consisted of a bowl of rice while they made us a scrumptious feast for every meal. Many slept in hammocks every night, but they bought blankets for me to sleep on the sofa. And yet I was still more worried about schoolwork than I was about their needs, and I wasn't sure if the stress to come once I got back to Rice would be worth it.

My roommate and I got really close to our host family. They cheerfully put up with our broken Spanish, and helped us learn more of the language. They took us out almost every night - to the beach, the parks, the plazas, out to midnight snacks and to Mayan ruins in the city. I struggled to keep up with Spanish, but I was really having the time of my life. When we were out late, they would let us sleep in the next morning and make us a delicious breakfast. Most of the time, I found that I had completely forgotten about my schoolwork; the people were just so wonderful that work seemed unimportant.

Towards the end of the week, the team had also started interacting with the children in the community. We played games until we dropped, did some skits for them (they couldn't help but laugh at us), and even with my limited Spanish, I got to know a few of the kids very well. For most of the games, they had to translate for me, and we all laughed over the stumbles I made in the language. The very last day, one of the girls came up to me and, in between Spanish and English, managed to say, "I will miss you."

As I gave her a grateful squeeze, I realized that I would miss everyone: our host, her family, the pastor, the cooks. The list goes on. The community was so happy to have us here, even if all we were doing was a paint job. And they had sacrificed so much to make us comfortable. I looked back, and wondered how I could ever have forgotten how wonderful it was to do service.

Homework? It could wait. I swear I could hear the wind whisper, "Some things are just more important." I was in Mexico to help the people there. And no matter how much energy it required, I could already see that it had been more than worth it. All of this, I discovered on my Alternative Spring Break. And for anyone who may be considering an Alternative Spring Break, be sure you take at least one before you graduate. It is one experience you cannot miss.

Michelle Phillips is a Lovett College freshman.

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