Charlie participated in Putney’s Service program in Ecuador & the Galápagos and wrote his college essay about how the experience strengthened his empathy and desire to better his community. This fall he’ll be attending Western Michigan to study aviation science.

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Clang. My shovel hit another football sized rock, jarring my body for the hundredth time that chilly day in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. The trench I was digging was confined between a foliage covered hill and a dirty cinderblock wall of the school we were serving that week. The wheelbarrow became increasingly difficult to maneuver through the ever lengthening trench. Our goal was to move the dampness away from the moss infested school, making the environment safer and cleaner for the elementary children. We didn’t complain, despite the physical work. The five of us were content listening to rap music and talking to each other. I only knew these friends from California, Vermont, and Virginia for two weeks. Although my team that day was just four other people, the whole group consisted of eighteen students and two leaders. We bonded rapidly over our shared experience of exploring a new culture, doing hard work, and playing late night card games.

This month-long journey showed me a new place and culture and ripped me out of my old cycle of life, forcing me to grow out of the isolation and hardship I had been experiencing before the trip. I developed a greater sense of who I really am, further strengthening my qualities of empathy, fairness, and respectfulness. It was a catalyst for leadership and independence.

One morning, Gaby passed me a hot cup of Horniman’s Tea to soothe my sickness; she was my leader and mentor. We had grown close, and I felt I could be open with her, and she also happened to be the nurse. We sat on the wood floor of her room at Hacienda Porvenir and talked. The Cotopaxi volcano stretched ominously above the surrounding parámo. We would hike it later that day. Like the volcano, the end of the trip was looming in our minds. Talking with Gaby was a moment of clarity and realization at the pinnacle of the trip. I have consistently been a respectful and deep thinking person, and I always strive to understand and seek justice for all. Through conversations like this, I developed plans to use my strengths and attributes to better myself and my community upon returning.

The lessons I learned and the plans I made on this far off trip not only stuck with me, but are now being realized. For one, I am leading middle school youth at my church by implementing an original program for deeper conversations and connection through a coffee hour. Overall, I am excited to help other kids grow in an empathetic, open environment, like I did in Ecuador. In addition, I am in student government and an advanced choir. These both help to directly benefit the learning experiences of my peers and me, creating a positive environment using my empathy and respect for others. From digging trenches to in-depth conversations, I am thankful for the growth these experiences sparked, allowing me to impact others in a meaningful way, not only now, but also in the future.

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