By Emma Harvey
My first encounter with Sierra Service Project was a Weekend of Service in Sacramento. The two and a half day program was only a tiny portion of the SSP experience, but it was still incredible. I had the opportunity to work with an organization that provided shelter for victims of human trafficking. Working and helping a community so close to my own home was moving, and I left feeling inspired to make more of a difference in my hometown.
Later that year, my next SSP adventure began. As I left on the seven and a half hour drive to San Diego, my 14-year-old heart was heavy with the loneliness, low self-esteem, and social anxiety freshman year had gifted me. I went into the week with low expectations, assuming I could get away with keeping my interactions to a minimum.
To my surprise, people didn’t let me simply blend into the background. People introduced themselves to me, asked me about myself, and actually cared about my responses. The work team I was assigned to was a diverse group of people, but we all worked surprisingly well together. That week, we helped to build a fence for a veteran living in an impoverished neighborhood. The progress we made as a team was incredible, and I found myself mixing concrete, leveling posts, using power tools, and doing many other jobs I never thought I would do. Beyond construction, I also made a tangible difference in someone’s life, and it felt wonderful.
The interactions and conversations I had that day introduced me to redemption, and opened my eyes to experiences that were completely different from my own.
On Wednesday of that week, I took a trip across the border with the group and visited a shelter for displaced men and women who had been deported to Tijuana. The interactions and conversations I had that day introduced me to redemption, and opened my eyes to experiences that were completely different from my own. One of the men I was introduced to that day told our group about his life growing up, how he had struggled with gang violence and drug abuse in America until he was deported. Upon arriving in a country with which he was primarily unfamiliar, he did not despair. He instead worked to get clean from drugs and save enough money to create a shelter for people like him.
This man’s story was only one of many I heard that day. As an incoming sophomore in high school, I had never been to Mexico, or known any people like the ones I met that day. Seeing their rooms, eating lunch with them, and listening to what they had to say – these are experiences I knew I would never forget. That day opened my eyes not only to the capabilities of human kindness, but to the never failing resilience of the human spirit.
The friends I made in San Diego had a tremendous impact on me. One boy in particular always comes to mind. He and I had many conversations throughout the week, and we came to discover we had gone through similar struggles in our pasts. It had been months since I had truly opened up to anyone, for fear of being invalidated or misunderstood, but the people I met that week treated me with unconditional support and kindness. I realized that asking for help, being honest about my emotions, and allowing myself to be loved was not a sign of weakness. It was proof of how strong I had become.
For the first time in years, I allowed myself to truly accept kindness and love, from both God and the people around me.
I had so many meaningful conversations that week and learned an immeasurable amount about myself, others, and God. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to truly accept kindness and love, from both God and the people around me. I learned I was capable of telling my story without being humiliated or alienated. More importantly, I learned how to make friends and shamelessly be myself around strangers, discovering it wouldn’t result in rejection.
That week was the first time in months I felt truly connected to God. I saw Him in the people around me, the hard work, the sandcastles, the stories, the conversations by the ocean, and the camaraderie we all formed with one another. After that week, I came back to praying on a regular basis, and I began seeking out the path God had planned for me. I began to accept myself as I was. I left San Diego feeling more hopeful than I had in years, ready to take on any twists and turns coming my way.
Two years later, my church and I hit the road again, this time heading north to Smith River. I had a better idea of what I was in for, having been through both the Weekend of Service in Sacramento and the full summer week in San Diego. However, two years of life had put a lot of distance between me and the version of myself that had left San Diego all that that time before. I was back in a rut, this time for entirely different reasons. I was feeling a lot of distance from God and the people around me. Isolation was a sickness I couldn’t seem to shake, and the future was an unpredictable storm cloud looming over me. I went into that week questioning my relationships and my place in the world, hoping for clarity.
Contrary to my prior experience, this time around I was the one introducing myself first, making sure to go out of my way to include the kids on the sidelines. By the time our first night rolled around, I had connected with several new people. I was already feeling myself forget about the trivial issues I had left behind, putting more energy towards reconnecting with God and making the greatest difference for the community I was staying in.
The love I found in that tiny group was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
My team that week was absolutely ideal. Each of us brought something different to the table, and whether it was humor, leadership, introspection, optimism, or calmness, each addition was invaluable. Our work site was nearly an hour away, and by the end of the week, the car rides had become our space for singing, connecting, and storytelling.
We worked so well together it was almost unreal. Being part of a team that was so compatible and productive taught me the true value of teamwork. I saw us learn to communicate despite our differences and laugh about our similarities. The love I found in that tiny group was unlike anything I had ever experienced. By the end of the week, as cliché as it sounds, we had become like a family.
On Thursday night of that week, we had an expedition to the beach, and one of our discussions rotated around our insecurities and fears. We each had to pick one word that described what we were most insecure about. My word was “burden.” We all opened up to one another, prayed for each other, and discussed how to let go of our fears. On the drive home, I was sitting in the passenger seat looking out at the ocean, when I heard a voice from the back. “Hey Emma? You’re not a burden. You’re the opposite of that.” Everyone in the car started pointing out why the others’ insecurities weren’t accurate, and before long, the car ride turned into a circle of gentle positivity as we all assured one another that our insecurities weren’t anything but irrelevant worries.
Teenagers go to SSP to help make the world a better place, and come away with a new understanding of life, God, and themselves.
Our Spiritual Life Coordinator that week inspired and motivated all of us. Instead of merely focusing on spirituality at SSP, she emphasized how to take what we had learned and carry it with us beyond the one week we spent there. She encouraged us to try to maintain the goodness SSP brought out in all of us. Together, we brainstormed how to keep being the versions of ourselves that had emerged in the short time we had been together. Leaving Smith River was heartbreaking, but I walked away as a kinder, braver, wiser individual, prepared to continue loving people as I had done that week.
The time I spent at SSP never ceases to amaze me, not only because of the growth I saw in myself, but because of the growth I saw in others. Teenagers go to SSP to help make the world a better place, and come away with a new understanding of life, God, and themselves, equipped to continue having a profoundly positive impact on their corners of the world. The organization hugely benefits and betters both the communities it participates in and every individual lucky enough to take part in the programs.
I have SSP to thank for so many of my best qualities. SSP taught me to seek out beauty wherever I go, love myself, be compassionate and give people the benefit of the doubt, trust God, help others whenever and wherever I can, put myself out there, and be brave. I feel so blessed for every day I’ve spent at SSP, and for every day I’ve spent growing, loving, and learning because of it.
Editor’s note: Emma Harvey is a senior at Folsom High School and attends SSP with Faith Episcopal Church in Cameron Park, CA. She has been elected this year to serve as a youth representative on SSP’s Board of Directors. This article is featured in SSP’s 2017 Annual Newsletter; read all seven stories written by youth volunteers, summer staff, and community members. Request a hard copy newsletter to be mailed to you.