When we got there, he turned off the ignition. Together, we took in the sight of the refugee center. One year ago, I had been here. One year ago, it had been a school. My teens whispered in anticipation. My nerves tightened. What next? I’d never done this before. They were looking to me for direction, and I was many paces beyond what I knew in life.
“They’re going to riot,” our driver said softly, looking me straight in the eye.
Cold fear clutched me, held me tight. I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Had I brought the kids into danger?
“No,” I whispered back. “They won’t.” I wouldn’t have it.
I swung open the minibus door; we tumbled out, my eight teens and I. We’d filled the vehicle to the brim with donated items for the refugees–school supplies, winter clothes and toothbrushes.
Folk about town had said we’d never get enough to help anyone. They said the government should take care of these things. They said whatever we could collect would be a drop in the ocean. They said no-one would give.
My teens said otherwise. And when all was said and done, less than two weeks later, we had more than could fit into one minibus, and the local government had offered to loan us a second minivan to help refugees who’d settled nearby. When all was said and done, teachers were coming to me, thanking me, as if they themselves and their kids and their community hadn’t been the heroes. They were asking, “What else can we do.” I was thinking– “You’ve done so much. Just believe in yourselves and go for it, because it’s all in you.”
How much can we do, if we just try?
I’d saved several thousand dollars before going to Peace Corps. I was going to travel afterwards. I would go to New Zealand for two months. I’d live free.
That’s not how I spent the money. I spent it coming back to live in Georgia without Peace Corps, coming back to see my teens, to continue our work together, and to invite them to help the refugees with me.
And what we did, yes, it was a drop. But for the kids using those books, pens, backpacks and textbooks, wearing warm clothes in uninsulated collection centers that had become their long-term homes, and with new toothbrushes…I think it was a welcome drop.
And as for my kids, as I call them, my teens… They did something they’d never imagined they could do before. They–kids from a small, marginalized and impoverished region–helped others. They found in themselves the confidence, the drive, the vision and the fortitude to galvanize a community to reach out and help the refugees so far away.
In a place where volunteerism is not a commonly understood concept, they led a volunteer initiative. They led it, they added their own unique spark and even their disorienting quirkiness.
When we first started, I remember sitting down and planning how to hire the minibus with them. One of the kids got the idea to run to the head of the local government–the lead official in town, I say!–and ask him to lend us the vehicle for free. I doubted the government would see the kids, leave alone offer us a freebie. But far be it from me to shut down an idea.
“Go for it,” I said. My expectation was that they would go for it, you know, in due course. Not scramble to their feet and pelt out that very instant. My jaw about hit the floor when I saw a split second later how the room had emptied.
Sure enough, the answer was a kind “no.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll see.”
They did. The second round would be on them. On the first trip alone, we gave away thousands of school supplies and hundreds of articles of winter clothing. We ran out of refugees at the three centers we visited. And there was no riot.
Only surprised pleasure. In the eyes of the kids who’d been torn from their homes by war, in the eyes of their parents, and in the eyes of the teens who’d come so far to reach out to them and give what support they could.
We drove back singing. It had been a full day, the culmination of quite a lot of work and community generosity. One of my kids shot me a crooked smile. What was it?
“It feels good,” he answered, “to do good things.”
I tried to hide it, but I cried.
When the minibus driver dropped off the last of my kids, I stopped to pay him for the day.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No,” he answered. “Thank you.”
“For what, for making you drive hours upon hours with our out-of-tune singing behind you?”
“It feels good,” he answered gruffly, “to see young people doing good things.”
Later I heard he was a former refugee, from the last war.
So maybe I’m broke now, and maybe I didn’t go to New Zealand, and maybe, who knows, I never will. But as far as I’m concerned, the highlight of my life happened there, in that crazy little hurtling minibus with my crazy hurtling teens.