I’m at that point in my college life when I honestly think that people around campus have started calling me “that volunteer girl” (and I’m okay with that). Between my involvement in service organizations and passion for volunteering, I have surrounded myself with opportunities to give back. The one service experience that has resonated with me recently and taught me a lot about servant leadership was my trip with the Pulsera Project to Nicaragua this past summer.
The Pulsera Project is a non-profit organization based out of West Chester, Pennsylvania that works with impoverished Nicaraguan street artists to create bracelets, also known in Spanish as “pulseras.” They send their unique creations to the United States where high school and college campuses sell them to students for $5 a piece, and then campuses send the money back to help give these youths shelter, scholarships to go to college, and other services to ensure that they do not return to lives of poverty. I was able to bring the Project to the Rutgers campus, where we sold over $3500 worth of bracelets – or the equivalent of three years of college for a Nicaraguan. So, when I was offered the chance to go meet these artisans myself, I jumped at the chance, and I am so happy I did.
Our time spent in Nicaragua was split between visiting all of the different cooperative members involved in the Project, from the family who created pottery pieces in the mountains, to the local members who stayed at the Pulsera Headquarters in Granada. At each location, we were able to hear everyone’s perspectives and experiences, as they were able to share their stories of how they came to be a part of the Pulsera family.
The one phrase I heard over and over during my 10 days with the Project community was “siempre adelante,” or “always moving forward.” These young men and women were so determined to make a better life for themselves and their families, simply by doing something at which they excelled. It was truly an eye opening experience to hear about their backgrounds; many of them had been in a shelter for years prior to joining the Project where they suffered abuse and loss. Now, instead of grieving and seeing themselves as helpless, they have taken a basic skill and used it to lift themselves out of poverty – and that is so powerful.
By now, you may have noticed that no actual “service” has been mentioned. But as I traveled with a nonprofit to visit a developing country, isn’t that what we should be doing?
To be honest, I initially thought we were supposed to be serving these people. Isn’t that what servant leadership is all about? It was only towards the end of my trip that I realized that sometimes just hearing one’s story is inclusive of servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf defines a servant leader is one who “is a servant first, who has responsibility to be in the world, and so he contributes to the well-being of people and community. A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development.” But how would I ever know the needs of these people or promote their personal development without first hearing about their lives? This sort of personal connection has impacted me more than blindly selling bracelets at a table ever could – I am now even more passionate and inspired to make a change, to help better these young Nicaraguans’ lives.
The Pulsera Project isn’t just about selling items to make money – it’s quite literally an investment in human rights and a fight for equality and compassion. This “servant leadership” experience taught me more than I could have ever asked for – the fact that empowering someone else is better than constantly giving handouts, the idea that sometimes when you are serving, you will receive more than you give, and my new favorite mantra, “always move forward.”
For more information about the Pulsera Project, feel free to visit their website: www.pulseraproject.org, or check out their newly released Color the World 2012 video (and “like” them on Facebook!): http://www.facebook.com/v/10151481050638569.