What We Do Different: Building Relationships

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I frequently find myself in the same conversation with people before they come on a Learning Journey to Guatemala with Reading Village.  Here’s how the conversation typically goes.

Traveler:  What are we going to build when we are in Guatemala?

Me:  Relationships.

Traveler: No, I mean how are we going to volunteer to help the people in the villages?

Me:  You’re going to accompany them in their work of changing their lives and transforming their communities.

Traveler:  Is that all?

Me:  It’s everything….

That short exchange always leads to a longer and very useful conversation about one of Reading Village’s core tenets — though materially poor, the people with whom we work are incredibly wise, resourceful, capable, and motivated to create better lives for themselves and their communities.  Reading Village does in fact provide many resources – including leadership training, scholarships, and books – but we steadfastly believe that how we are in relationship with these communities is far more valuable than any resource we could ever offer.

Here’s what I mean.  At the outset of the Learning Journey I ask people to give me their definition of generosity.  Often they talk about sharing what we have (and brought with us) with those who have less.  People are very excited about distributing the books, pencils and notebooks they bring along.  Then on one of the days we visit the homes of some of our teen reading promoters.  These are cinder block homes with dirt floors and corrugated metal roofs, usually lit by a single light bulb.  There is no refrigeration or modern plumbing. The families subsist on about $4 per day per family.  We’re invited into the home by the parents and there are often some plastic chairs set up.  Then the senora — the mother offers us a slice of orange.  It is what she has prepared — what she has to offer us.  And it’s right around then that it strikes our participants — the greatest act of generosity they will engage in during the trip is to accept and eat that slice of orange.  Accepting that kind of gift from someone who has so little to offer materially is to see her into being — to say, I see the dignity in you.

To sit with people, share an orange, and share with a teen that you see his or her gifts is a powerful act of service and generosity. It is a way to affirm another person’s dignity.

It’s what child psychiatrist Alice Miller calls being an “enlightened witness.”  Through our kindness and appreciative attention we return people to themselves.  We help them remember the best of who they are (e.g., gracious hosts) and the highest possibilities for their lives, and they help up us see another way of living, a more thoughtful and conscientious way of being. We are both better for these interactions.

After one of our scholars became pregnant and left the program I remember saying to her, “You are still and will always be a reading promoter.”  My wife Linda and I kept repeating this message to her throughout her pregnancy and continue to remind her of this fact as she raises her daughter. Today she is the mother of a lovely two year old and when we visit her she always seems to have a book that she is reading to her little girl.  We continue to remind her of the fullness of who she is even as she inhabits a culture where she is encouraged to see herself as so much less.

On our next Learning Journey in November participants will bring books, play games with local children, and even help our scholars celebrate literacy throughout their communities. But when our travelers return to the US the local people will not be left talking about the book or the party. They may or may not remember the name of the game we played together. What they will be left talking about is a small moment in which an “extranjero” who came from a faraway country sat with a Mayan teen and said, “I really believe in you” or “this work you do teaching kids to read really matters” or “thank you for sharing your knowledge about corn with me.”   This is the transformative power of accompaniment. This is generosity.

Don’t miss your chance to sign up for the next Learning Journey – November 2-9th, 2013. Registration is open, email us for more information at learningjourney@readingvillage.org.

– Larry Dressler, Co-founder & Board Member of Reading Village

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