I arrived at Fazenda Boi Gordo (or Fat Cow Farm) in Campo Grande, Brazil the first few days after the New Year in 2010. I spent the next four weeks as a volunteer, working on the vegetable garden, getting to know the towns people, and eating chili peppers which always went unsold. The farm was part of a community of recent migrants from the northeast of Brazil and immigrants from Japan. Both groups came for various reasons but overall in search of safety, work opportunity, adventure and a better life. From waking each day before dawn, to eating lunch with workers and staff who spoke a mix of Japanese and Portuguese, I experienced a lifestyle and met people I would have never otherwise encountered.
Second to the spider webs that spanned 20 feet, the inspiration and connection I felt to the people I met on the farm is the most memorable part of that volunteer experience. The farm’s owner, Sergio, who emigrated from Japan in his early 20s, had the same favorite movie as my father (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a musical, western style romance comedy. I don’t think I need to explain why it was a hit in South Asia). I felt an unexpected empathy with his children, who were still reconciling being between two cultures; an identity crisis that many of us children of immigrants experience. In four short weeks, I built relationships with people whose stories both touched me and connected with my own.
My farming stint, and other similar volunteer experiences increase solidarity, cross cultural understanding, and a sense of community between diverse individuals. I feel a much deeper respect and connection to people who devote their lives to intense physical work such as farming, and immigrants/migrants from all backgrounds. I thought of the farmer and his family when I visited Japan the following year, and often when I buy fresh fruits and vegetables off the farm stands throughout California’s countryside.
I look forward to participating in my first Be the Change event this fall and having another opportunity to serve and build my community. Be the Change is an annual day of service, which SAALT coordinates, that has thousands of participants from across the United States. It is a response to Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” For me, Be the Change is a chance to commit volunteer hours in solidarity with people around the country. More importantly, however, Be the Change gives me a chance to reflect on my vision for the future of our community, which is one of greater equality and meaningful relationships. To understand the role community service can have in my vision, I am taken back to my most influential and impactful volunteer experience: my time at Fazenda Boi Gordo.
In general, I think “being the change,” all the time can be a challenge, to say the least. My morning mantra, is hardly, “wake up, brush teeth, eat breakfast, be the change.” Usually, I don’t even make it to “eat breakfast,” before I look at my cell phone and rush out the door so I can make it to work on time. Furthermore, there are so many changes I would like to see in this world, I usually don’t know where to start. Yet, when I think of all the opportunities I’ve had to serve the community, and all the relationships I’ve built because of them, and I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I feel excited and refreshed by the people I’ve met, and everything I’ve learned through them.
We all know how important it is to give back to the communities that we live in, the communities that sustain and nurture us. In these last few sentences I could try my best to inundate you with the best scientific evidence, and statistics I’ve scrounged up on how community service increases levels of happiness. Or how each hour spent volunteering has an economic value of $22.14 (http://www.handsonnetwork.org/tools/volunteercalculator). There is no doubt that community service and volunteerism is part of the glue that holds this nation together. Yet, I think the most meaningful statement I can leave you with is that my experiences serving as a volunteer is the glue that binds me to my vision for the future. Each friendship made is a small step towards strengthening my community. Each experience inspires me and guides my life decisions. For example, without positive volunteer experiences, I would have never chose to spend this past year as an AmeriCorps Volunteer serving the South Asian immigrant community in Maryland, through SAALT. All in all, I’m excited to participate in Be the Change 2013, and can’t wait to hear new stories, meet new people, and see how it will shape my future.
Maryland Outreach Coordinator, AmeriCorps