Chris Spencer, Head of English at TAS, is about to take a group of students to Fiji to provide service to St Christopher’s Orphanage. Chris shares the mutual benefits.
How do you get students and staff involved in this project?
There is never any shortage of enthusiasm from either! Unfortunately, many years we simply cannot take all the students who apply to go. I guess it is mainly through word-of-mouth and the evidence that the trip has been a significant milestone in the maturing of students from previous years.
When the students report on the trip to the younger ones, there is always this struggle to capture the entirety of the experience into a few words. Whether they manage it or not, it is very clear to the younger students that something quite significant has occurred, and I think they get interested in checking it out for themselves.
At St Christopher’s, what tasks do the students become involved in?
Well, it varies from year to year; we take our direction from the Sisters who run the home. Often, it is quite simple maintenance jobs like painting or gardening. Sometimes it has been something larger and more skilled, like building.
Ultimately it all comes down to being a part of maintaining the home for the children and, in a way, we get to leave a little mark to say that we have a part in it. We also get to spend a day at a local school. Our students conduct lessons and generally run amok with the locals. A teacher’s nightmare and kid’s dream day at school!
We understand there is a buddy system between the students and the children at the orphanage. How does this work?
St Christopher’s Home looks after children from just a few months old through to 18 years. There are boys and girls up to the age of about 13, after which it is girls only. We try to pair up our students with children from the home for the duration of our stay. They play together, get to know one another and share their insights and experiences.
By the end of the trip, they really feel that they have an insight into the life of someone who has travelled a very different road from their own. And it’s a two way street, of course. The children in the home enjoy getting a taste of what life is like for Australian boys and girls. It’s a very powerful experience, and the aspect of the trip which has the greatest bearing on our students.
How do the TAS, NEGS, PLC students cope with the different culture they face?
The very fact that the students volunteer for this trip, knowing full well that it is no holiday, indicates that they are ready for a challenge in experiencing a different culture. They seem to rise to it each year, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy! There are set times on the trip where we debrief and the students have the opportunity to talk about what they are seeing and thinking about, and that definitely helps.
You might be forgiven for thinking that visiting an orphanage would be especially distressing, and it’s true that there are some terribly tragic backgrounds to the children in the home. But what really stands out is how the Sisters manage to practically demonstrate a genuine, hands-on, gutsy Christian love that makes the home just that.
It’s not that the grief is whitewashed; there is a transforming capacity of the love expressed to these children that fills the place with joy.
Our students pick up the atmosphere pretty quickly. There really is no room for feeling sorry for the children of the home – they are loved and cared for with a potency that can make our community feel a little paltry by comparison.
What do the students gain personally from this service project?
Where do you begin? In part there is a learning about giving time, effort, money – which is valuable for anyone and something that I think we pride ourselves on as Australians.
So I think in that regard it is nurturing the sort of character that we aspire for our children to take on for themselves. But it is also an opportunity to turn the tables on the thinking that, culturally, we have somehow ‘made it’ – that we have the answers and the sort of society that other parts of the world might aspire to.
Each year our boys and girls come back knowing that our material wealth is nothing compared to the wealth of functional community based on a solid foundation.
I think our students come back with the capacity to dream of something more tangible and substantial than a vague hope of success or prosperity; there is no real joy in either of those things.
Thank you Chris.