Last fall, while many of my fellow 2014 high school graduates were buying decorations for their freshman dorm room, I was buying three months of travel insurance and a plane ticket. And while they were traveling to their orientation week, I was flying to volunteer in Quito, Ecuador.
In my senior year, I went through the college application process and decided to attend Vassar College. However, unlike many people, I decided to defer my acceptance for a year. Rather than go straight from high school to college, I took a year off to see the world and do some good in it. Along the way, Ill become fluent in Spanish, build an international network of friends, and get a much better sense of many ways of life that differ drastically from the one I was born and raised in. All of this will allow me to go to college this fall recharged, matured, and with a different set of experiences than most of my classmates, as well as more appreciative of my education. To make this experience possible, I worked all last summer and this winter as a busboy, dog walker, babysitter, pet sitter, lawn mower, dance teacher, and other assorted jobs, so that I could pool my money with what my parents contributed to pay for everything.
In Ecuador (and this spring, in Guatemala), I volunteered through IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters), a company that connects volunteers with nonprofits around the world that have been vetted by IVHQ. It’s a great system that I heard about through two friends who also used IVHQ for their gap years. In Quito, I volunteered for the non-profit UBECI (United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children International).
Our volunteer work consisted of setting up an area where children whose parents work in street markets could come to learn, socialize and be encouraged to go on to primary school. Schooling in Ecuador is mandatory but not enforced, so our job was to essentially set up a preschool in the street that would make school more attainable and desirable for these children.
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When UBECI began in 2003, one out of 10 kids that UBECI worked with went on to attend primary school. Now, all of them do. I do not presume that the 10 weeks of volunteer work I’m doing will help equalize the privilege I was born into versus the poverty of the children I’m helping, but rather it gives me a chance to do some good in the world. By myself, I may not have changed any single child’s life. But my participation in a continued program of volunteers helps further the progress the program has helped each child achieve.
I have heard of people who ridicule volunteering abroad as volun-tourism. There certainly are people who go to other countries and at the end of their trip the only thing improved is their Instagram account. But not one volunteer I met in Ecuador fit that stereotype. So did I take some great pictures with the children I worked with, or while surfing on a long weekend? I absolutely did. Did I help teach children about the importance of a healthy diet, and how street lights work, and which color is which, and how to do long division? I did all of those as well, along with many more basic things that add up to the general education that is so essential to obtain a better position in life.
Look at the mouth of the 3-year-old boy whose teeth rotted out of his mouth before they even fully grew in. Feel how many ribs you can count on this young girl who is so desperate for hugs. Smell a baby whose family can only afford one diaper a day. Listen to the toddler who only communicates through growls when he’s upset. Then see the love in these kids eyes when they see me or another volunteer arrive, when they jump into my arms, clamoring to be swung around. Listen to their giddy laugh while playing soccer, dancing around potholes and stray dogs. Feel their hands after they’ve been washed with soap for the first time in days. These kids deserve more than what they were given at birth, and education is often the best way for them to go farther in this world.
For me, a gap year is proving to be a fantastic addition to the elementary-school-to-middle-school-to-high-school-to-college path that so many of us thought we had to take. Last month most of my friends got on planes to go back to college. This week I will get on a plane going to Guatemala where I expect to volunteer for three months with young children. A gap year is not for everyone, but I would recommend that all high school seniors at least look into it.
Kyle McConaughey is a 2014 graduate of Carolina Friends School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.