BARRETT: Service trips: Giving your money’s worth



Tom Barrett

It’s been a little over two weeks since hundreds of Villanova students returned from service break trips all over the Western hemisphere.

Many people went to various Habitat for Humanity sites across the continental United States. where they helped turn piles of wood into frameworks, while others journeyed across borders to live and work in solidarity with the poor in the third-world nations south of the border.

These students’ eyes were undoubtedly opened, as many of them witnessed poverty that most people think only exists in late-night television ads. Most of them came back to campus charged-up and ready to take on all the challenges of the world.

But it’s been two weeks, and for the most part, the world still seems the same. Thirty-five million people live under the poverty line domestically, and people in other countries still lack access to clean water, the most basic of resources. This brings up a popular criticism of these experiences: are they really worth it? One can’t help but look at the price tag on one of the international trips – some cost in excess of $1,300 – and think, “Wow. I wonder how many houses they could pay a professional to build with that money.” These people raise an extremely valid argument, especially when considering third-world countries where the cost of living is so much lower. Think about how much food that money could provide to people that are starving. Is this money really being put to its best use?

If the point of these trips were to make miraculous changes in a once hopeless area in a very short period of time, then the answer would be “no.” It’s just absolutely unrealistic to think that working in an area that has faced years of hardship for one week is going to cure all of its ills. The problems creating and reinforcing these horrendous social conditions are simply too complex and intricate for a group of American college students to erase in a handful of days.

If, on the other hand, that is not the point of these trips, then that’s an entirely different story.

The real value of these trips lies in something intangible, something that may not be readily seen. While we all hear and see countless statistics about hunger and poverty in classrooms and on posters, these trips make these numbers come to life by giving them a human face. When looking in the eyes of a little Mexican orphan, one can’t help but feel not only compassion but also a deeper anger and frustration.

It is this combination of hope and rage that these trips aim to evoke in those that participate, and it is up to these young men and women to harness these feelings and to let them transform the way they live their lives. These one-week experiences have the potential to create conscientious global citizens who are aware of the world and are willing to work to protect its most vulnerable members. That’s something you can’t put a price tag on.


Tom Barrett is a junior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].