Learning How to Leave Effective Footprints

As I walked out of the pet store, I had the biggest smile on my face. For one, I felt like Santa Claus.

But most importantly, I was taking full advantage of my freedom and doing something my mother wouldn’t have ever allowed.

How hadn’t I thought of this the second I got here?

Back home, my siblings and I were scolded for petting random dogs; now I finally got to smother all the dogs I wanted. Unlike in the US, here it’s typical to see stray dogs, and as soon as I saw it I felt it was out of place.

Every dog needed to belong in a loving home that provided all the food and warmth possible.

And that’s where I made my mistake: I used the word needed.

Perplexed as to why others hadn’t done something, I decided to take initiative.

Leo Buscaglia once said,  “Don’t spend your precious time asking, ‘Why isn’t the world a better place?’ It will only be time wasted. The question to ask is ‘How can I make it better?’ To that, there is an answer.”

I marched right into the nearest pet store and bought the biggest pack of dog treats available. Not dog food, but dog treats.

Why give food when you can give a treat instead? Because to me, a treat seemed more fitting as a reward for the dogs’ hard struggles on the street.

I went around Florianopolis giving treats to every single dog I passed, only to face even more confusion- they weren’t devouring them. At first I thought, “Maybe it’s just these first dogs that don’t like the taste. Or even worse… maybe they don’t trust something humans give them because poor them, they’ve been mistreated all their life.”

For weeks, my book bag reeked of dog treats and though I think only one dog ate a treat, I still carried them with me everywhere I went. I even went as far as attempting to feed the same dog various times.

Then it randomly struck me. I was practicing the exact opposite of what I believed in.

During In Country Orientation, we read an article describing the difference between “service learning” and “learning service.”

Service learning is when the volunteer will learn “life lessons” because of the service they are doing. Typically, in the end it’s usually the traveler that benefits more than his/her work actually helps others.

One can still learn from his/her experience abroad, however “helping out” should not be the sole point of a trip. Learning service on the other hand is one focused on helping not only the traveler, but others as well through a deep comprehension of the locals’ way of life. This includes understanding factors such as history and culture in addition to the issues faced in the community. With this, one grasps how to create long lasting and significant contributions. As stated in the article, “learning is not the outcome or byproduct of serving the world but a fundamental part of it.”

Today, the voluntourism industry is mainly focused on service learning and it has boomed with people trying to improve their resumes and/or egos. Of course, not all who participate do it for selfish reasons, however, this topic brings me back to a presentation during Pre-departure about “do good or feel good.” Many of us feel the responsibility to do something when we see problems, yet not all the ideas are effective.

One of the key things established during Pre-departure Training is that this is not a year where we will miraculously save the world. There were plenty of times I would joke around with friends that I’m taking this bridge year to do just that. Nonetheless, I understood this is a leadership program designed to help us develop skills necessary to have an impact, some day.

Yet even after having processed that and discussing the article, I later realized I hadn’t truly grasped the full concept. As soon as I arrived in Brasil, I took on the position to “save” the dogs and hadn’t thought of it in the same terms since they weren’t people.

Now, looking back on that experience and repeating to myself that same Leo Buscaglia quote, I see there are unlimited responses to that one question. Nevertheless, I believe the most important answer is simply: to learn. Many of us are so motivated to make a difference that sometimes we don’t think to slow down and listen. We can make the world a better place by learning and that’s how we get not only an infinite number of solutions, but also ones that will be effective.

If any of you are interested in reading more about service learning vs learning service, this the link to the article I referred to: