Liam is a year long cast member in Up with People. As he wraps up his semester traveling and volunteering around the world, he graciously shared his experience of his time volunteering in a juvenile detention center in Mexico.
“The air was stale and heavy, like chewing overcooked chicken; it took all the moisture out of my body. The sun scorched the arid dirt in San Luis Potosi. We pulled up to the looming gray gates where two armed guards met the van. Our driver and the guard spoke in Spanish, but there was an ever slight hesitation and defensiveness in both their voices. We passed through the security checkpoints, leaving all metal, electronics and accessories behind with the pat-downs. The anticipated relief of being inside never came. As we started to setup our workshop, twelve boys walked into the room. They were tall and short, heavy and thin, but all of them were smiling. I was awestruck . How could these boys, who were all my age, be smiling? They were confined to this four-walled hell for committing felonies – murder, kidnapping, rape. Yet, they smiled and laughed.
During our workshop, we asked them questions about their values, their ideas on leadership, and had them share with the group their own philosophies. The answers that tumbled from their mouths could have come from my classmates or me, yet my gut told me that their tan skin, midnight-colored hair and MS-13 tattoos made them different from me. Together we ate fresh tacos on dirty plastic plates for lunch, all under the menacing eyes of “the eagles” who paced in the corners holstering their guns. Then, on coarse beige concrete in torrid heat, we played soccer for hours. When the time came to leave, I choked back tears for their lonely walk into their barracks, while they still laughed and smiled.
What moved me about volunteering in a juvenile detention center in Mexico was not the similarities between the prisoners and me. I have done enough traveling to know that some things about being a teenage boy are universal. It was their happiness; the stained-toothed smiles that crept out every time I tried to speak Spanish, or attempted (unsuccessfully) to show off my soccer skills.
I was befuddled. These boys laughed and joked, as if they were free men. Born into underprivileged households, their childhood circumstances funneled them into a life of crime. Yet their anger was not directed at the Universe or God, as I know mine would be. They counted their blessings, and despite their situation, found happiness getting out of bed everyday. The hope and determination they had to regain control of their lives was viscerally inspiring. It was a hope that grew in the most hostile environment, but back home among my friends and privilege, it was dying.
Up with People has given me a unique opportunity to travel the world and do service. More importantly, it gave me the chance to discover my passions, something I aimlessly searched for in high school. In school, the cynicism and passiveness of my generation always vexed me. At what moment did we stop caring? At what moment did the 14 year-old child being married off, or worked 60 hours a week, or told to kill a rival gang member become “not my problem”? At what moment did we start losing our humanity?
I had never met up close those cast out by society and certainly never expected so much joy and happiness from them. Instead I chose a life of blissful naivety behind the prismatic shield of a classroom. This past year I learned something new. The hope that thrives around the world grows springing up like a sapling after a forest fire; it has beaten the cynic in me. I see that change is possible and that hope can be contagious. Not the hokey version that exists in waiting and praying; but hope that through action, I can make the world a better place for my fellow human.
I have a goal in returning to school for an education: to prove to my generation that retweets, “likes” and simple awareness are not enough. Hope is active, and I must tirelessly persist for a more civil, equal and peaceful world. I plan to pursue my education in conjunction with social work and policy advocacy, unleashing my passion to affect the change we need.”
“But if I keep maybein’ I’m sayin’ I just don’t care
The middle of the road will get me nowhere
Time to make a choice, time to raise my voice
The lesser of two evils doesn’t go there”
Maybe I © Up with People
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Topics: Gap Year Abroad
Up with People is a global education organization which aims to bring the world together through service and music. The unique combination of international travel, service learning, leadership development and performing arts offers young adults an unparalleled study abroad experience and a pathway to make a difference in the world, one community at a time. Click here to learn more about the internationally acclaimed program, Up with People.
Up With People, doing what they have done so well for over 50 years! Changing and growing the minds of our young adults to make active changes in the world. Beautifully written!
Thanks, UWP, for continuing to make the world a better place through your work and the inspiration it has given many of us to do the same.
Liam, you are an inspiration and I am so proud that you are part of the Up With People family. I traveled as a 16-year-old in 1967-69, cast A. You have @25,000 alumni family who share your zest for life and your desire to make a difference in the world. Hope to meet you next year at the 2020 reunion, which will be my “era’s” 55th reunion! Hugs, Zandria LeRoy-Bernhardt