A Service Reflection: Why service matters at home and abroad

DSCF0484 DSC04566

This is a reflection piece done by Jacquelyn Horstmann. After witnessing the education gap within the United States, she traveled across to world to Nepal, where she witnessed how devastating the education crisis really is.

Six months ago, my best friend of 15 years, Ashley, called me and left a voice message. I listened to it, expecting to hear her cheery voice telling me to have a great day, but instead she said, “Jackie, want to build a school with me and a group of eight people from buildOn… in Nepal?”  Shocked by this spontaneous question, I did something completely out character: I called her back and said, “Sure, why not?”

My drive to challenge the status quo in education began in 2006 when my friend Lindsey asked me to volunteer with her at a local elementary school near the University of Florida, where we attended school. The majority of this elementary school’s children received free and reduced-price lunches. Matched with two fourth-grade boys, once a week we would play on a rusted playground and work on math homework. Through volunteering and our conversations, it was clear that this school and these boys were challenged each day by a lack of opportunities in education and beyond. After seeing this gap in person, I made a commitment to bolster access to important opportunities to students, like my two fourth-graders, who needed it the most.

When I graduated from the University of Florida, I knew I wanted to work for an organization that had a direct focus on helping our nation’s neediest children. In 2011, after a year of mentoring with Higher Achievement, I joined the staff to work directly with students in the Washington, DC region. After three years of working at Higher Achievement to help close the opportunity gap in our nation’s capital, I received the call from Ashley.

I left for my trip to Nepal on January 5, 2014. Travelling alone for over 30 hours across 12 times zones was incredibly challenging, but what it was nothing compared to what I was about to experience.

The biggest lesson I learned during my trip to Belkundi, Nepal was the importance of educational opportunities in international communities. About 72 million school-aged children in the developing world are not in school. This staggering statistic unfortunately makes sense once you understand the living conditions of the villagers. The current school in the village where I stayed is made of mud.  Each year during monsoon season, it falls apart because of the heavy, persistent rain. Could you imagine students in the US going to school practically outside when the rain is so thick you can barely see the ground in front of you? Even through all of these obstacles, when you ask the village children what their favorite activity was, each young person would proudly respond, “school.”

In the village where we stayed, the three most educated men had only completed 10th grade – including the school’s principal. Many of the villagers could not read or write. I learned at one of our daily group lunches that no country has ever experienced continuous and rapid economic growth without first achieving 40 percent adult literacy. The literacy rate in Nepal is 57 percent. Break it down by demographics and you find that there is also a large gender gap: 72 percent of men are literate and only 45 percent of women are literate. Lack of access to quality education perpetuates extreme poverty.

My team of nine people helped bring a permanent primary school to this small community by raising funds and contributing sweat equity. If you searched for the village on Google maps, you can’t find it. The new primary school will attract more government funding, and it will build the reputation of the village locally and regionally.

The last day of my trip was by far the most difficult day. The villagers of Belkundi established their community eight years ago. Before the village was founded, the villagers were indentured servants. Rarely did they show emotion. So, when my host mom ran onto the bus one last time to say goodbye and grasped my hand through tear-strained eyes I realized what we did for this community. We built not only a school, but we also built confidence in our families.

The people of Belkundi and the fourth-graders I mentored in Florida taught me that  happiness is a lifestyle. It is smiling when the sun comes up, and laughing when chickens barge into your mudroom at 6:00am. It is the proud host dad who points to your newly built latrine and says, “bathroom.” It is meeting new friends and rekindling the deep ties of old ones.

I hope you keep Belkundi, Nepal in your mind. These people have more confidence, more gratitude, and more hope than anyone I have ever met. I challenge you to go on trek, support a school project, or volunteer in your local schools to make an impact in someone’s life.

As they say in Tharu (the dialect of the villagers of Belkundi): “Ram Ram,” the Tharu greeting of hello, good morning, and good evening in the Far West region of Nepal.

Ram Ram!