By Vivien Pua
Approaching the conclusion of my high school career, I began to question if I had got as much out of the experience as my 6-year-old self had hoped. It was a late night when I was finishing what felt like my thousandth essay, that I realised I hadn’t. This was no one else’s fault, but my own. I hadn’t really noticed the tyrannical cyclic nature of school until now. My routine just manifested itself as something that every student ‘just had to do’. I was confining myself within what my careers counsellor would call, a “high school bubble”. I hated this saying, but it was undoubtedly true. But I didn’t want assignments, exams and the occasional party to be all I did.
And that’s when it happened.
The melody of Dirty Paws by Of Monsters and Men resonated through the assembly hall. And with that came a video that depicted what it was like to volunteer overseas in less developed countries. In that moment my mind was made up. A bearded man stood at the podium and proceeded to deliver a cheesy yet effective speech with phrases used such as “an opportunity of a lifetime” and “escape your comfort zone”.
I wish I could tell you it was as easy as that and fast forward a year and I’d be in half way across the world in Peru. But I can’t. What followed was possibly the most challenging 11 months of my life. I was attending fundraisers every weekend and countless meetings in-between. I’d never fully understood the term ‘hustle’ until now. Despite all of that, it felt really good. At every fundraiser, I’d see a myriad of new faces and have the pleasure to meet some of these people. And those who I already knew were becoming dearer friends.
In the end, we did it. Ninety others of my close and not so close friends and I raised enough funds to send us all to South America. What followed was all the bearded man had promised. We trekked the deepest canyon in the world, explored the ancient lost city of Machu Picchu and ate guinea pigs. Immersion in Peruvian culture was enough to make it worthwhile; however, we were rewarded with something far greater.
The ability to make a real difference.
On the outskirts of Cuzco city, we met Alexandra. When hearing her story my consistent thought was that this couldn’t possibly be real that what she was telling us must’ve been the plot of a heartbreaking film. But for her this was reality and perhaps that’s why she was sharing it with us.
In short, this was her story: to generate income, her parents built a greenhouse and began to sell roses (which was fate as her surname was Florez meaning flower in English). It was a couple of years later that her mother fell ill and was diagnosed with breast cancer. With no clinics in Cuzco, her mother would have to board a bus for 22 hours to the capital city of Lima for treatment.
These trips took their toll. But thanks to donated funds (to go towards flights to and from Lima) from Peru’s Challenge an organisation aiming to improve the living standards of rural Peruvians, Alexandra’s mother was able to enter remission stage.
Then, another tragedy struck their family; her father passed away in a road accident. Due to the immense grief, her mother fell ill once again and she too passed. Refusing to be sent to an orphanage, and turning 18, Alexandra was now the legal guardian for both of her siblings. Continuing her parent’s flora business, Alexandra is able to send her brother and sister to school as well as pay for her university fees. Making her the first in her family to ever exceed primary education. She implored us to understand the importance of perseverance and compassion. And it worked. She followed this by handing each of us a single red rose.
With that, we began our project of rebuilding a family’s home that had been destroyed in a flash flood. During our stay, we slept in the local school and were fed by families who just wanted to make us feel welcome. Confetti and singing the second we stepped through the gate crafted a feeling of warmth and pure love. These strangers opened their homes, and not once did I feel an ounce of resentment. No matter how many big words I use or the order in which I write them I will never fully articulate this feeling.
As a young person, the feeling of being purposeless or trapped is a common occurrence. And I think it’s easy to blame this feeling on others or our age. We’re constantly faced with questions like what we want to do when we leave school, or what career path we want to enter into. This constant talk of the future leaves us with no sense of the present and what we can be doing right now. So it’s my turn to implore you. Remind yourself the world is far bigger than your high school bubble. Volunteer anywhere and everywhere. No matter the scale, do something this summer that will make a change. Do it for others but also do this for yourself. Understand the importance of perseverance and compassion. And no, you don’t have to travel all the way to Peru to make this happen.
It begins with you, right here, right now.