Long-lasting lessons from my Amizade service trips

by Daniel Alexander

Time flies but lessons and experiences remain fresh in Amizade alumni’s minds. In 2000, Greg Payne participated in a program to serve and learn with our community partners in Bolivia. Thanks Greg for sharing your thoughts and reflections 17 years later

Are you an Amizade alum from 20 years ago? 10 years ago? last year? We want to hear from you!
The newly-tiled sleeping quarters in the extension our team helped to build at an orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Blog author Greg Payne (far right) is pictured with some of the service team, including the on-site lead mason, Remegio (third from right), and Amizade founder Dan Weiss (second from left).

It was almost exactly 17 years ago (yikes!) when I eagerly stepped off the Lloyd’s Aero Boliviano (LAB) flight onto the tarmac in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the start of my first service-learning excursion with Amizade.   My 20 classmates and I from the University of Virginia (UVa) squinted from the bright sun as we marveled at the Bolivian Andes that hugged the north end of the city.  Everyone in our group shared a nervous excitement and anticipation for the weeklong Alternative Spring Break experience ahead of us.  We were in good hands though – we were not only under the supremely capable and professional guidance of our Amizade trip leader Jean Carla Costas, but had the great honor of sharing the experience with Dan Weiss, founder of Amizade.  Certainly, questions swirled through all of our group’s minds in that moment (What will the city be like? What will service be like? What will the food be like?  And…when are we eating lunch, anyways?), but we knew our trip leaders had everything well-planned and taken care of, and we were only too eager to dive into the experience.

The vividness of that first service-learning experience has stayed with me, and has provided me with fond memories and incredible stories to share with others.  Perhaps more importantly, though, as I’ve reflected on this first Amizade service-learning trip (and on two subsequent trips to the Navajo Nation and to Appalachia), I’ve realized that the greatest impact of this experience has been the profound lessons that I learned – lessons that have continued to shape my path and guide my professional career.

Lesson #1 – Approach new experiences with humility: I still remember the first day we arrived on-site at the orphanage where we were helping to build an extension to double the building’s capacity. It would have been easy for us “Westerners” to assume that each step in the construction process would certainly be inefficient – that, naturally, we would have a better way to do things, no matter what. And, while the on-site masons may not have had the most advanced tools, their efficiency and effectiveness was mind-boggling – they had built profound knowledge and skill in “doing a lot with a little” over years of dedication to their trade. I quickly learned that the best thing that I could do was to enthusiastically and humbly follow the leadership of our well-seasoned on-site experts!

Lesson #2 – Engage others with sincere curiosity: Nearly everything our group encountered during our service-learning trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, was novel to us. From salteñas (savory Bolivian meat-filled pastries) to carnival (where we witnessed traditional dances like the Tinku and sprayed each other with “espuma” (foam)) to hand-mixing cement and tiling a floor (see previous lesson), we were constantly immersed in opportunities to learn something new. In order to truly take full advantage of those opportunities, we had to be open to the experience and ready to engage with questions. Inevitably, the result was not only knowledge gained, but also cross-cultural relationships built and strengthened, as our Bolivian hosts noticeably appreciated our sincere curiosity about their country and culture.

The whole team – students, masons, Amizade leaders – gather with some of the orphans to celebrate a great week of construction!

Lesson #3 – Always set aside time to celebrate and share joy: After a week of hard work under the Bolivian sun, there was nothing more welcome than gathering to celebrate a job well done. I still recall the long afternoon we spent playing soccer with the orphans after finishing our project. There was a palpable joy amongst the children – the extension we were adding was nearly complete, and soon they would no longer have to crowd into a single room to sleep. Our entire group had much to celebrate – the masons had successfully guided us with their patience and knowledge through the construction process; our Amizade leaders had witnessed yet another group transformed by their service-learning experience; and we UVa students had benefitted profoundly from an opportunity to do good work, to expand our sphere of cultural awareness and understanding, and to make lasting friendships.
My passion for service and for emerging markets has continued throughout my personal and professional life, and these lessons have followed me every step of the way.  This opportunity that Amizade offered me and my classmates to immerse ourselves in a new culture, to serve others, and to build bridges of friendship and understanding was invaluable and, in my humble opinion, could not have been found anywhere else!