Picking up the trash can be deadly – Experiential Learning I

So there I was with my class of 16 Freshmen participating in a service project so they would get to know and trust one another to facilitate class discussions later. My course was entitled “Am I My Neighbor’s Keeper”? It was a writing course on poverty. So here we are in a poor neighborhood and we’ve been told by the campus service-learning center to help the people by cleaning up the neighborhood. I was the professor so I had the responsibility of getting my students to pick up the trash in this neighborhood, but how? Yes, I know, just bend, stoop and grasp–piece by piece the bits and scraps could then be tossed into the garbage cans. I didn’t like it. How would I feel if a bunch of “kids” came up my street and began to pick up stuff around my house? I would be angry.

I prayed and as I prayed I looked up and saw a steeple. There was a church on the corner of this block that my students and I had been assigned. I said, “Thank you, Lord.” and proceeded to give my students instructions on what we were going to do. They got their gardening gloves on, got the long-handled brooms out, scrub rags and hedge cutters. We went into the church parking lot and began to clean. It wasn’t but a couple of minutes when people started coming out of their houses to talk with us. We told them we were here to clean (I hope they thought I meant the church.) One older woman asked if there was anyone who wasn’t afraid of snakes that would clean out a nest of garder snakes under her porch. Her family was so afraid of them that they could not use their back door or sit on their porch. A young woman biology major said she’d be glad to help her and off she and another student went to get the snakes. The woman said her husband was sick and had been unable to do the yard work and asked if we could help her with that, too. Several others went to mow, trim hedges and pick up trash. Pretty soon some children came with a ball and some of the students joined with them in a game of basketball. The older woman told the students where the drug addicts came in the alleyway and told them to be careful so they wouldn’t get stuck with needles. Little by little, relationship by relationship the street got done. At the end of the day we talked about what had happened. It was a good learning experience for the students. They asked the people what they needed. They formed friendships and sought advice from the people on how to proceed and where it was safe and where it was not. They accepted lemonade from the older woman and laughed at the older man’s stories.

When we returned to the college bus where we met up with another group working in another part of town, my students learned that the other group had a very opposite experience. This group went onto their street and immediately began picking up the trash. They did not speak to anyone and soon found that people driving by would throw things out of their car windows at them. Upon leaving they were followed by a group of adolescent males who threw things on the ground as they “walked them out of their neighborhood”.

John Eby, retired head of the service-learning center at the college, wrote an article entitled “Service Learning is Bad”. In the article he said, “When service-learning is done
without proper selection of students and without appropriate training, orientation and reflection, it can support ineffective and sometimes harmful kinds of service….If need is defined as a deficiency and the community in need is seen as deficient, “this exaggerates the importance of the person who serves, demeans the person served and ignores resources in the community such as peers, families and community leaders”. I think Dr. Eby’s philosophical treatise on service-learning was borne out to me that day.

The Bible is real clear on where a Christian should stand on this issue. Paul writes in Romans 12:3b,c “I tell each one of you not to think you are better than you really are. Use good sense and measure yourself by the amount of faith God has given you.”

The next couple of days my posts will be about service-learning and what I learned teaching through experiences for 17 years. I hope you will come by to catch a good story or two.

All is grace,

Dawn

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10 comments on “Picking up the trash can be deadly – Experiential Learning I

  1. Dawn, what a thought-provoking example of how much we need to be sensitive to others and not just assume all help is created equal. This applies to mission work, too. I have been guilty, as I reflect, on doing the same thing sometimes: giving my idea of help or helpful advice where it maybe wasn’t needed or wanted. I learned a lot about giving, too, from the times I was on the receiving end. Some people give with little faith that the recipient will best know how or where to spend the money. They make specific stipulations or ‘do it for you’, i.e. a check already made out to a utility company or whatever. Others have complete faith and just give. I realize this isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all topic but it is fascinating to see how people give and what attitude they carry with it.

    Now how did I get on giving when your post is on service? I apologize. I love the way your group approached the task. I will tuck that away. To give in a way that doesn’t demean the recipient or elevate the giver-that is the goal, isn’t it?

  2. Dear A.,

    You got my point exactly and I LOVE how you shared your experience on the receiving end. I had a student intern do a study on the ‘helped’ and the ‘helper’ and how they perceived what was happening during the period of service. It was really incredible what each thought and they didn’t match.

    Thanks for your insight. We must go to bed. Shall we not? I lost half this post so I had to recreate it and I didn’t want to go to sleep when it was still in my mind and now, it’s 3:30 am!

    Short sleeping here,
    Dawn

  3. Dawn, I just love the depth of your experience and knowledge — a better word would be “wisdom!” The comparison of the two groups is priceless. I know that the Bible teaches that we should all be cheerful givers — but there are also those who have the GIFT of giving. The ones with that special gift just seem to know where, how, what, and who and how much. It pours out from the heart. Sounds like your group was led by one of these, and the students learned quickly. How wonderful. Receiving was perhaps the hardest thing I ever learned in life. It nipped at my pride, first of all, and then reminded me that I was NOT all as self-protective and self-sufficient as I thought I was, and that scared me. But learning to receive was the greatest thing, as I also learned to open my heart to love, to caring, and healing.
    And on top on it all, I learned the true art of giving. Picking up trash seems so easy, aas you stated. But it isn’t about the trash, is it. It’s ALL about PEOPLE and HEARTS! Your group proved that once again! I’m looking forward to reading more!!!!

    • Dear Cora,

      “It’s not about the trash” should have been the title of this post. You nailed it. I learned to listen to those being “helped” by making many mistakes and by watching those in leadership positions over me make mistakes. That is not to say I am A+ at it, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have experience and the Lord Jesus is kind enough to forgive and send me out to “help” again.

      I am applying for a service-learning assistant director position at a local college. The deadline for applications is July 7. I thought blogging about my past experiences may serve to bring those experiences to the front of my mind again. I have been a practicing nurse for the past 7 years so these specific instances as an educator using the service-learning model are in my past, but they are still very pertinent to the position at hand. I just pray my application gets me to the interview stage.

      I so identified with your statement about having to learn to receive, too. That was a tough one for me…long story. Being on the other side, as A. so aptly wrote about, should be a prerequisite for “helping”. I am going to meet my sister now. Please pray I can hear beyond her words.

      Blessings with hugs,
      Dawn

  4. [John Eby, retired head of the service-learning center at the college, wrote an article entitled “Service Learning is Bad”. In the article he said, “When service-learning is done
    without proper selection of students and without appropriate training, orientation and reflection, it can support ineffective and sometimes harmful kinds of service….If need is defined as a deficiency and the community in need is seen as deficient, “this exaggerates the importance of the person who serves, demeans the person served and ignores resources in the community such as peers, families and community leaders”. I think Dr. Eby’s philosophical treatise on service-learning was borne out to me that day.]

    this stunned me because it is exactly what I have found to be true and here it is in words!
    I have found it the same in family relationships… if we intrude where we find deficiencies and do it for them… attitude can ruin relationships!
    coming alongside graciously …not demeaning the person served builds trust and a real love bond…
    Awesome post Dawn… will set these thoughts well in my heart and look forward to the next ones!

    • Dear Susan,

      I was smiling as I read your words. I also get stunned when I see something I’ve experienced or thought about set down on paper. We are all scholars. We just don’t all publish! I hope Andrea Dawn is reading this because I told her I was going to tell my receiving story to Cora, but I’m actually telling it to you. I was a graduate student in Oklahoma and moved there on my own. I was moving “stuff” into my apartment when some graduate students who already lived there offered to help me. I was very relieved because I didn’t have the strength to unload everything myself, but I knew no one. At the end of the day, I offered to pay everyone. BIG mistake! HUGE! Each of them in turn expressed that I really needed to learn how to live in community and that a big part of that was receiving. I was there a year and I learned community living. I think it was one of the most important things I learned getting my Masters of Science in (what else?) Community Health!

      Ironically called to work in community,
      Dawn

  5. Good morning, Dawn!
    Love this post . . . would love to share a bit of my experience on the receiving end. The last couple of years have been quite difficult for me physically as I have become highly sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies, developed an arrhythmia, and need a knee replacement. For someone who has always been a “doer” and loves to help others, this has been quite a challenge to adjust to physically and emotionally. I, who rarely needed help with anything, now need help on a regular basis. But this all became much easier to accept when the LORD led me to these scriptures in the Message Bible. Matthew 10:40-42 “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

    Looking forward to more posts on this subject and praying you get that interview!
    Blessings, Andrea Dawn

    • Andrea Dawn,

      This is truly precious. I must remember this citation for all those who are in the midst of struggling with being on the receiving end. I am going to share my receiving revelation in my reply to Cora. I just haven’t gotten there yet. God has much to teach you through your physical difficulties that you would probably have missed otherwise. I am praying for clarity as you look to Him, that you see as clearly with your spiritual eyes as you do through the lens of your camera with your natural eyes…and that’s really good!

      Praying for you,
      Dawn

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