Emily Johnson is a fourth year doctoral student in the PsyD program at the University of Indianapolis. Emily has been to Africa, India, and Nicaragua working for organizations like Global Autism Project and SkillCorps. Emily will receive her PsyD in August of 2014. This is her reflection from her most recent trip to Nicaragua:
I am writing from a veranda on the second story of a school in the suburbs just south of Managua, Nicaragua. The school, Tesoros De Dios, is a school for children with disabilities, and I am here with a medical team. I’ve now worked in four different countries with children with disabilities, including the United States.
I am staring out at the mountains from here—volcanos, actually—and thinking about how lucky I am. After seeing half a dozen or so kids this week with terminal, degenerative conditions, I’m thinking about how we could all die any day, and how if I died today, I would be happy with how I spent my last week on earth. I’m thinking about being in India with SkillCorps and how my now-dear-friend Tina told me, “Don’t let anyone stop you from following your dreams. It’s the only thing in life worth doing, and anyone who loves you will see that and support you.” She probably doesn’t know this, but I think about that conversation a lot.
I travel to a lot of places, but my dream, corny as it sounds, isn’t just to experience these places, but it is to make a true difference. A lot of people have wanted this, but few have truly succeeded. Sometimes, as Americans or as helping professionals, we misunderstand what we can truly offer. After I came home from DRC in 2011 with Friendly Planet Missiology, I was confused and amazed by how many people had come before me to try and “help” but failed to do so. They brought a lot of “stuff”, including wells, medical supplies, and Americanized systems of care. They came in thinking they had the right answers and the right materials, and when they left, their supports were never (or rarely) used again. This happens a lot in the disability community, too. We want to help so much that we often bring a large quantity of stuff compared to the best quality of intervention. We open many subpar schools or programs (instead of one great school/program), so we can serve the greatest number of kids, because it is so hard to imagine not helping all of them. I think what happens is that we truly feel helpless and overwhelmed by the need, and we want to see that we’ve done something. We want to stand back and look at the well that we’ve built, or the wheelchair that we’ve brought, and say, I did this. But who maintains that well or that wheelchair after we leave?
The difference, to me, between quality and quantity in the disability world and the NGO world is sustainability and community/family engagement, which actually go hand in hand. I want to know that what I did for the community was something they asked for, they engaged in, and to which they are committed. I also want to know that it has a fair chance of existing after I leave. So even though I often have the urge to do it, I rarely bring supplies or technology on my trips. Often, it is really needed. Often, it could benefit the community. But if they did not ask me for it, if they don’t have interest or ability to maintain it, it’s just another band-aid on an already gaping wound. We all mean well when we do these things. And we all make mistakes. It’s not wrong to want to help in this way. Anyone who has learned to provide quality services in other countries once started out bringing quantity instead. But, if we want to really make a difference, we are called to be better than this. We need to learn from our mistakes and learn what is the difference between quality and quantity, when it comes to serving people in a culturally sensitive manner.
In SkillCorps I learned that these are not easy problems. These are complex problems. If they were easy to solve, someone would have already solved them and they wouldn’t exist. If you go away after 2 weeks thinking that you’ve solved the problem, and that you truly had no frustrating or disappointing moments, you’ve probably missed the mark. That’s why SkillCorps only works with long-term partners who drive their own services. We work through the disappointment and frustration with our partners, and we let them tell us how we can best serve them, not the other way around. We rarely bring “stuff”. Instead, we bring ourselves. It is hard for me to accept that I am my own greatest asset. I still feel the need to bring a lot of stuff, if only to make myself feel like I am doing something. But I’ve learned to resist—the greatest difference between quality and quantity in this world is what mother Teresa said—“We cannot do great things on this Earth. We can only do small things with great love.” So if you sign up for SkillCorps or support the Global Autism Project—and I hope you do—be prepared to do small things with great love. Be prepared to bring yourself and use yourself fully as your greatest asset. Be prepared to be frustrated or disappointed on some days, but be prepared to make a difference.