Receiving is part of giving back
After two years, I am back visiting the small villages of the Ignacio Zaragoza district in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, with Peter Westcotts Aspen Middle School sixth-grade class. Since my previous visit, they have put down a quarter mile of roughly finished concrete on the main streets of Allende and Madero, but that is about all that has changed. The walls of the adobe houses are worn indiscernibly. Horses and chickens lazily roam the countryside, which flows through the towns. Aside from the main drags, streets are still a grid of dusty, rutted passages connecting the owners of small homes to each other and serve as insulation from the drivers of modern cars accustomed to distant superhighways and far more horsepower than exists on even 100 acres of this drought-scorched land. The people here exist in two states that we in the paved world believe cannot exist together. They are poor. They are happy.This year we have come in greater numbers. Matt Fields sixth-grade class has joined with Westcotts for the incredible journey succinctly dubbed service-learning in school board nomenclature, since no combination of words can convey the depth and breadth of the experience. About 40 adults have come along, too eager and hesitant to leave most vestiges of modern comfort at the border, knowing that they have no chance at clearing local customs.Instead, we transport supplies that were throwaways, magically becoming treasures here. We haul lockers from the rubble of our old middle school along with computers that are too slow for the world that turns faster to the north. We bring books and paint. We give clothing and household goods. We employ the power of people motivated to repair and improve humble structures where children learn. We also bring money that our kids have raised over the course of a year. Its enough to buy five houses in town.On the job, under the sun and in the dust, you get to know people. New friends appear at your side. There is camaraderie and like thought; most agree that we are getting more than we are giving on this trip. It makes us work harder.Roosters wake us before dawn, hammers pound the hours away and dirty pickups rattle down rocky streets, but there isnt much noise here, not noise in the abstract sense anyway. That would be the noise of stuff that fills our lives back in the states the way sirens and trash trucks overwhelm the silence of modern nights. Those sounds interrupt sleep the way materiality interrupts our peace. We are living for a short time in a new perspective.People in this remote part of Mexico are at least as happy as the people of Aspen. You have to experience it to believe it. Its not in classroom curriculum.We have things, they have relationships. Both take time. They take time to acquire. They take time to maintain. They take time to keep track of and organize. Accumulate one at the expense of the other. Its a decision. We have left our things at home, forgotten for now, and have become tight as a group, using time to know each other. It is time well spent, a bargain actually.When not at work, our kids observe the nightly fiestas hosted by people who dont appear able to afford them and fool around with the Mexican children, catching crawfish in the nearby stream or playing basketball with rules eliminated or modified on the run to suit the ever-changing number of players welcome on the cracked court or when existing rules become boring. At home our kids enjoy the newness of gadgets and electronic games, not the essence of what they promise to provide. Those devices not only to kill time, but serially murder it. With only their imaginations and each other to rely on here, children learn that there is no limit to entertainment. Creating fun is the fun.Coincidentally, the middle of our week in Mexico is their National Day of the Child. There is no school, and everyone has gathered for a huge celebration at one of the areas many community centers. Wrapped up in getting our various projects finished, most of the adults choose to forgo the festivities and keep working.Word makes its way back to us that the mayors wife is attending the celebration and will be insulted at our absence from the fun and games. Grumbling, we put down our tools. Its inconvenient. What a pain! Dont they realize we are doing this work for them?The truth was not obvious until it came to me. Of course, people are insulted when they throw a party and their friends chose to work instead of coming. We are their friends! These people definitely need the things that we bring. But, they dont value them more than they value us. This revelation might not have appeared like a bolt of lightening, but it felt like one to me.Contrary to what I thought I knew, it is not better to give than it is to receive. Receiving a gift from another person might be one of the kindest things you can do. It makes them feel good. It makes them feel equal.Giving without graciously receiving in return is not charity, its welfare. Its demeaning. Its arrogant. It has less to do with actually caring about another person than it does with ego gratification.We raised concerns about our group being a burden on these kind people who put us up in their modest homes, turned each meal into a fiesta and provided every comfort they could during our stay. We offered to pay them back in cash. I dont believe that we could have been less thoughtful by trying to be more.As it turns out, they and their children had spent the previous year raising money to cover the cost of our visit. They took great pride in the fact they had made the week of our stay into such a wonderful celebration for everyone. It was their great pleasure to host us.Ive learned to help with two hands one on my hammer and the other on my friends shoulder.Roger Marolts heart still is in Mexico. However, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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