Journey to Service

By: Hannah Isakowitz, Senior at The Ohio State University

I moved into my dorm on a Saturday for my freshman year of college at Ohio State. I was terrified and confused and ready all at the same time. On Sunday, my two new stranger roommates and I went to the Student Involvement Fair, where over 1,400 student organizations gave us a peppy hello and a flyer. It was overwhelming to say the least. One of my roommates, Kali, trailed behind a little bit, so I went to see what she was looking at. It turned out to be GIVE Volunteers, an organization that does service trips all over the world. I thought it sounded nice, but certainly too adventurous for me. I had never travelled without my family, let alone to the opposite end of the Earth to a rural village. I wasn’t a hiker or a manual worker or a tree hugger. Everything I thought I was supposed to be, I wasn’t. I walked away.

A few days later, Kali brought it up again. She had already paid her deposit to go to Thailand and Laos for a month. Something about the excitement in her eyes made me feel like this was possible for me, too. And so, the adventure begins…

Almost 9 months later, I found myself on a 16-hour flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Panicked. What if I hated it and I was stuck for a month? What if this organization doesn’t align with my ethics?  Will I make any friends? Am I too out-of-shape? My journal from that day is filled with questions like these. But of course, the moment I arrived in a brand-new space and was greeted with smiling faces, all of those worries disintegrated. That month was life-changing. As a team, we overcame language barriers, made amazing friendships, worked harder than ever, laughed, and importantly, asked some really big questions. I was so inspired – but I knew this was only the beginning.

Since that first leap of faith, I returned to Thailand the following summer for 2 more months of farming and teaching. I went down to the Gulf Coast for winter break with my school and had the privilege of meeting Steve. Fifty of us worked hard together on projects via connections he made and were eager to return home and hear his stories at dinner each night. Every trip, in its own unique way made me feel more connected to a greater purpose. Before I knew it, I had gone from “not adventurous enough” to an experienced leader of outdoor service and adventure – someone with a Wilderness First Aid certification and more travel and hiking gear than I even knew existed. Every expectation of myself, of the people I met and served, and of the reality of service had been shattered.

On the Saturday I moved into my dorm at Ohio State, I had no idea this would be how I spent my life in college. I had no idea how much I actually loved hiking and manual labor. These trips didn’t just give me a fun and meaningful experience for the time I was there, they helped me see what was already inside me all along. Enough curiosity and commitment for a lifetime, and a heart of service.

I have three pieces of advice for anyone thinking about going on a service trip for the first time. First, the only expectation you can have of any service experience is that you will always receive more than you will give. Second, pack your curiosity. Ask more questions and learn more about your fellow humans. Third, don’t hold yourself back. Everyone has a spirit of adventure and a heart of service. Find yours.

Don't Forget Charlie

1/15/16  Denham Springs, Louisiana

Ms Anna Christine and Mr Jewel Davis, both in their nineties grew up in the Deep South. This past week a team of 11 college women from Towson State near Baltimore, 7 of them of African descent, some of them Muslim, came down to help rebuild the Davis home.  At the end of the week after the team had finished their work I asked Ms Anna what changes she'd seen in her life having grown up in segregation: "A regret I had was that I didn't question the culture I grew up in. I didn't acknowledge them. When you walked down the sidewalk they (blacks) had to step off the sidewalk and look down...never make eye contact.  I find it hard to believe now that I never said anything, but that's what happens when you just go along."

"I suppose what changed me more than anything was in 1950 when I was hired to help with the census and I had to go into the country to many of their homes.  I was 20 years old and I went by myself. I was not afraid even though I had to take poorly maintained back roads where I'd never gone before. And it seemed we were always getting stuck in the mud. But they helped me not be afraid. They were so warm and friendly.  And they had no reason to be kind toward me. But they were anyway."

"I'll never forget one house way back in the boonies.  I sat on the edge of the porch and went over the survey with the mother of the house.  She had a big family and I thought we were finished when she said 'Oh my I can't believe I forgot Charlie!!!' Then she took me in the house, it was small and had only two rooms. Not bedrooms. Rooms. In the back room there was a baby bed made up.  The mother pulled back the covers and there was Charlie. She beamed as she told me that Charlie was 16 years old."

"I was taken back. The boy was the size of an small child, but had a head much bigger. He couldn't talk. He had the beginnings of a mustache. I didn't know what to say. But the mother adored him.  And I'll never forget how clean the bed was. The sheets bright and pressed crisp. So Charlie got counted and I was on my way, but I was never the same after that. The way they took care of Charlie taught me what it means to be counted. To be acknowledged."

"After the flood and two feet of water in our home, Jewel and I thought how can we ever recover at our old age. We can't do it.   And who would care to help. Everyone else has their own flooded home to take care of. And now these young women from up North are part of the force helping us rebuild our home. Once again they are teaching me what it means to be counted.  And not forgotten.”




When I launched the kayak from the shoreline onto Silver Bay, just outside Sitka, Alaska, I met an elderly Indian hobbling about the beach with forearm crutches making him a four legged.  He said he was checking to see if the bears were still around. He said a sow and her cubs were seen earlier in the week and he wanted to make sure they were gone before he brought the children out to fish.

To watch the Indian get around was in a way like watching the bear itself amble about.  He had a lot of weight to carry, but he moved with a natural ease that knew the setting, policing the grounds, thinking of the children to protect.  

It was later after paddling down the bay about five miles that I actually got to see a grizzly.  A blondie sow in the June estuary grass, too preoccupied to notice me, eating, roots and all. These blades of grass lush and oozing on long days of a sun that barely sets. Blondness and Greeness.  Everything about this creature took in and shined back the height of summer.

Once on the trail the scat of this Solstice reaper loomed large.  So fresh that none of the vernal green’s luminescence seemed lost to the convolutions of digestion.  Heaps so large that my Iowa farm boy reference would have said a Belgian work horse had just plodded through.  Then looking across the creek to where the bear ate, it finally decided to pay me some mind, interrupting its feeding to rare up on its hind quarters to size me up.  It eventually turned and dissolved into the cover of the woods, but for a moment I beheld the mighty spark that only a vast span of wilderness can kindle.

I’m not sure whether a trip that starts with a four legged old Indian at the launch is in real time or dream time.  And was the Indian looking out for bear to keep his grandchildren safe the same as the bear who turned when she saw me to protect her cubs in the woods.  Gladly finding them, more or less, where she told them to stay. Her behemoth blondeness tipping over at their insistence to give them her green engorgedness, nipples geysering the afterglow of her graze before they can even begin to suck.  

And the old Indian, finding no bear,  returns home with a jug of milk for breakfast cereal announcing, “We will fish tomorrow!”

Splish Splash

From South Carolina Flood Recovery 2016

The preacher in charge of the disaster recovery inspected yet another flood damaged trailer home, he  squeezed his way around piles of stuff with a clip board refraining from stating the obvious, “How can you live in a place like this?!?” Finally he offered the home owner, “Well we could surely get you a new tub and shower.” “Ah no sir…My wife LIKES that bath tub.”  It was a round horse water tank made out of a brown recycled plastic by Rubbermaid. He’d picked it up at the local farm supply.  It was plenty big enough for the both of them. Like a big hot tub you might find in a honeymoon suite. After the flood ravaged their trailer, David had so many leaks, so many outbreaks of black mold creeping across panels, floors and sodden ceilings, and with no insurance money to deal with the “deferred maintenance,” he began his recovery by tearing out the tub and shower unit and rolling the horse tank through the gauntlet of piles and drilling holes and installing the faucet unit in its side.

When the preacher had pulled in the drive and offered a hand shake David averted eye contact.  David’s face was disfigured with scars that gave his visage a pinched look. He walked us around the trailer with a can of Mountain Dew in his hand talking about how the storm just kept pelting the trailer with rain, emphasizing how much rain they got and how as a farmer he had a total loss of his cotton crop because the fields were still too wet  four months after the flood to ever get in the fields. “They covered me for the seed and chemicals, but nothing else. My wife and I were trying to save up some money so we could have a baby, but now were so far in debt….” “She’s working at a day care” As we made another pass around the trailer it became obvious that he was trying to avoid having to show us the inside of the trailer. Then he said, “I can show you inside , but it aint who we really are.”

On the wall was a yellowed local newspaper clipping in a frame, titled “Local Farmer Tries his Hand as Fantasy Writer.” As the preacher followed David to the end of the trailer, they stooped in the Master Bedroom. The preacher broke the awkward silence by saying,  “I see you’ve got a trach hole” The back story to come made up for the previous verbal reluctance and shifting from foot to foot, “ Yes sir, when I was in high school I was driving to school and swerved to miss a deer. I went through the windshield and was 35 days in a coma.”  “Funny thing I remember everything about seeing the deer, the car going out of control and me laying there in the field with my blood on the cotton, and seeing the tail of the deer bobbing up and down in the blue sky as it ran away. Now you’re not going to believe me when I say this, but it was the most peaceful time of my life.  I mean it’s when I met God and felt his hand on me. There’s no other way to explain it. That peaceful feeling is something I’ve been trying ever since to get back.” David circled his hand around his face and the pointed, “I mean they did all these surgeries and gave me this eye, but I can’t go through a day without finding myself day dreaming about the peace I felt that morning.”   

And the preacher was nodding the whole time, “I might know what you mean.  I felt that peace too, when I was shot in Vietnam. It was like time stopped and I just knew that I was with God and that’s where I wanted to be the rest of my life, so I told him I’d give my life to Him right there. I wasn’t sure if that meant living or dying. And just as I thought that, some more bullets flew in front of me and as I laid there I thought I was surely dead now, but they were all stopped by my helmet that had flewn off before and had landed in the dirt just ahead of me.  So I knew that the answer was that I was going to keep living so that’s why I’m a preacher today.”

Cotton balls rotting in the field, hopes for children postponed maybe forever if the birth control works, three FEMA rejections and you’re out, the wife worn down all the time from the daycare job and just depressed, the old tub/shower sitting outside filling with more rain and empty Dew cans, the bank threatening foreclosure… But they got their own well and can fill that tub up with hot water and at the end of the day,  David and his wife can scrub and soak and giggle and sigh with that peace flirting out there just on the periphery like the mockingbird that comes to sing every morning.