Last week I returned from my first service project abroad, a Stanford University organization called SEALNet, which focuses on service and leadership projects in Southeast Asian countries (http://www.sealnetonline.org). As it came close to me leaving for the project, I began to secretly fear that this project would convince me that I couldn’t make it through a year in Namibia. Fortunately, it did the exact opposite. I’m back with renewed enthusiasm for the coming year and am so excited for the experiences that await me!
The SEALNet project I was involved with was Project Thailand, which focused on garbage management and environmental education. It’s funny the things we take for granted, such as a centralized waste management system. The people in the villages we were working in had no way of disposing of waste, so it inevitably ended up in large piles in their front yard.
To be frank, the objective of our trip was way over our heads. We could educate the community about the dangers of keeping large trash piles or burning garbage, but we had no alternative solutions. The alternatives, incinerating garbage or keeping it in a landfill, were too involved for a two week project, not to mention the drawbacks of each of these solutions.
It was also difficult because we didn’t realize how ingrained their habits were. We worked with kids at three different schools and we would run workshops that taught them why littering was bad and at the end we would give kids candy for answering trivia questions correctly. However, after the kids were able to articulate why littering was bad, they immediately threw the candy wrapper on the ground! It wasn’t that they were bad kids or that they didn’t care, but they had grown up in an environment where people don’t even use trashcans. Where else were they supposed to throw it? One of the days we sponsored a Cleaning Day, where we went out and picked up litter around the community. We performed a skit before we went out that involved a Mrs. Garbage, who was one of our team members dressed up with a broom and a hat and tons of garbage taped all over his body (at this point you’re probably wondering why HE was a MRS. Garbage. I don’t quite understand this myself, but apparently Mr. Garbage doesn’t sound as catchy when translated into Thai!). When Mrs. Garbage entered, he took bags of trash and scattered them all over the floor and I implored the kids to help me recycle it so that we could fight Mrs. Garbage. They scurried up, so eagerly, and hurriedly placed all the garbage in its appropriate recycling bin. At this point, Mrs. Garbage shouted a phrase in Thai that translated to, “I’m dissolving! I’m dissolving!” and crumpled into a ball on the ground. The kids were SO excited, and they were so enthusiastic while we picked up tons of garbage off of the streets. At this point, I was beginning to think the message was really hitting home, and then I saw a girl taking off her latex gloves, about to throw them into the brush along the side of the road. I stopped her from doing this but couldn’t help but notice that later in the day the schoolyard was littered with latex gloves.
I know this all sounds pretty disheartening, and to be honest there were a couple of days when I thought our efforts were futile, but things did change. As we continued spending time with the kids and educating them about the issues, they started to take notice. I noticed kids walking out of their way to put things into the bins we had set up. I watched a group of schoolchildren, that we had trained in accounting, sorting, and weighing, actually run the garbage bank that we had set up.
Although I still have some reservations about the work we completed and its long term sustainability, I do truly believe we made a big impact in the lives of all the kids we worked with. Whereas before they may have just passed a pile of burning trash without blinking, I think now it will be a constant reminder of what they learned and, hopefully, they will collectively work hard to fix the problem. And, if we were able to make such phenomenal progress in two weeks, I can only imagine what could happen in an entire year!