A guide to narcissism: Service trips

Haley Beardsley, Contributing Writer

Roughly a year ago, I went on a service trip to the Dominican Republic with the intention of  “rebuilding and immersing” ourselves in their community; however, it was a complete extortion of the people and an opportunity for wealthy American teenagers to feed their white savior complexes. I was under the impression that we would be building an aqueduct in a nearby campo whilst distributing hygiene supplies — sounds charitable, right? In reality, we polluted the community and used the people to fuel our narcissism. I am ashamed to say that I was a part of this trip.

The trip was advertised as most service trips are: the opportunity to bring needed supplies and work on a physical labor project to help the community. The program and faculty had long been working with an established Creighton University program that aims to provide health resources to the surrounding, so-called “underdeveloped,” community. Considering we were ill-equipped high school students, our mission was to aid with infrastructural projects, such as building houses. Meanwhile Creighton’s program, fondly known as Misión ILAC, operated as the connection between the high school group and DR community.

The most helpful task we completed was repainting a health clinic, which proved to be more of an intangible source of inspiration for community involvement rather than any actual improvement to the clinic. The other six days were spent touring campos and exposing us to the realities of the “underdeveloped” world. 

Particularly, we spent one day in a batey, a community of Haitian refugees that are ostracized by the DR government. A bus branded “Misión ILAC” finally arrived, letting the mostly white high school students, including myself, climb out. We held suitcases of body wash, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste. All of us were beaming as the children ran up, asking for piggyback rides; however, my smile quickly disappeared when I saw their parents glaring from their porches.

We were all handed gloves and bags to clean up the trash that had infested the batey’s hand-dug sewage system. At one point during the clean up, I walked past the yellowed-grass and dirt-patch soccer field, and down a gravel path, which led to a sea of trash. Until the horizon, there were mounds of plastic, plastic, and more plastic. There were cows grazing in the sweet fields of paper plates while the batey children sifted through for a new toy. 

At the end of the night, we all gathered and sat in a circle to talk about the day (as service trips do). Meanwhile, I was racking my brain, asking “What did we actually do? Have we actually done anything here?” Realistically, every piece of gum, bottle and glass shard I picked up did not matter. In fact, we distributed bags of hygiene products, all made of plastic, that would end up back in the sewer system. We contributed to the problem. Yet, when I voiced my devastating realization, I was met with denial disguised as optimism. Students remarked, “But we made them smile!” and “Maybe we inspired and taught the kids to clean up after themselves.” 

A bunch of privileged high school students sat in a circle believing that they were the source of happiness for these children. They deemed themselves a fount of inspiration. According to them, the children and people in the batey were miserable without our group and did not know any better than to throw their trash in the streets. Better yet, most of them followed up with gratitude that they had the opportunity of exposure, so they could grow. 

The truth was in the parents glares. They knew the moment that we stepped off that bus, that we would not do a single thing to benefit their community and if we knew it or not, our presence in the batey was completely self-serving.

A year later, I am sitting in a class debating about what it means to be a “developed” nation. We discuss colonization, the white man’s burden and the white savior complex. All while my Instagram feed is plastered with throwback pictures of wealthy, white students with Dominican and Haitian children on their shoulders.

As long as we’re unable to recognize the narcissistic nature of “But we made them smile!” that is present in most service trips and other service opportunities, we will never truly aid others.  

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