This past summer, while other teens were flipping burgers, camping or hitting the mall, 15-year-old Jordan Wilkinson hoisted rocks in Kenya.
The Toronto teen was one of 30 young people taking part in a Me To We volunteer trip to the small community of Osenetoi, an eight-hour drive from Nairobi, where they helped build the foundation for a school classroom.
Her word to describe the three-week trip that developed into a transformative journey? "Amazing."
She entered Kenya last July via a connecting flight from Paris, then took a daylong drive in a lorry (think safari vehicle but roomy enough to seat more than 30 people) before arriving in Osenetoi. As the vehicle drove up, local children came running, yelling "jambo," a Swahili greeting. It was a sight Jordan says she'll never forget. "It was really amazing because the kids were so happy and excited to see us. We were all waving and saying jambo back!" she says.
Her volunteer trip was just one of many offered each year by Me To We, which also takes North American youth volunteers into rural Ghana, other parts of East Africa, Nicaragua, China, India and Ecuador. Although the trips are brief – two or three weeks – they are meant to inspire teens to continue giving back when they return home. A 2012 survey conducted by social-change consultancy Mission Measurement found that 85 per cent of youth returning from such a trip go on to volunteer in their own community and 66 per cent said they experienced transformative growth while away.
Although her days consisted of working on the school and playing with the local kids, Jordan also bought rice, beans and pineapples at the market and accompanied a local woman to fetch water, a two-kilometre hike with heavy containers.
That water-walk experience, and the locals' optimism even though 46 per cent of Kenyans live in poverty, left an impression and changed the way Jordan now perceives consumerism in Canada, she says. She says she takes shorter showers to avoid wasting water, gave away clothes she felt she no longer needed and now slurps down every drop of milk at the bottom of her cereal bowl.
"That little bit of milk is probably as much as a lucky child has in a single day in Kenya," she explains.
Although Me To We facilitators prepared her for the reverse culture shock when returning to Canada, it still took weeks to acclimatize. For instance, the first time she accompanied her mother Debbie Wilkinson to a grocery store, she froze. She couldn't walk through its doors, when she saw the aisles of food. The excess just seemed ludicrous, in comparison to what people eat in Kenya.
"This was food I could afford and I could have it if I wanted to, but I could only think of my friends back in Kenya and how they were struggling to have a single meal," she says.
Although her mother admits her daughter is still processing the Kenyan experience, Debbie is glad she allowed her to go, even if other parents thought she was crazy. At one point before the trip, a relative pointed out there was violent unrest in the country, but after a long conversation with a Me To We risk management employee, who explained it was a local conflict 17 hours away from Osenetoi, Debbie relaxed.
"I wasn't sending my child to a war zone. I'm brave, but not that brave," she says, only half joking.
Ultimately, the experience is paying itself forward. Each night while in Kenya, the teens talked about world events and explored which causes they were most passionate about and might want to pursue back home. Jordan, along with a few others there, decided to focus on girls' education. She's creating a new group, We To She, aiming to raise the $10,000 needed to send one girl to high school in Kenya.
"Happiness doesn't come from money, goods or what kind of phone you have," Jordan says. "The trip to Kenya taught me to appreciate everything I have so much more. I want to keep giving back."