Chaco Project
A Service Learning Experience

Why would a group of reasonably sane students decide to give up the comfort of their warm beds, electronic gadgets, bathrooms with hot running water and all the other wonderful things that are a part of their daily life, to live for 1 week in one of the poorest provinces of Argentina? Add to that the fact that they would be accompanied by teachers (those horrible creatures that torture them for 9 months of the year), sleep in tents (or the hard floors of the rural schools), eat food cooked by the aforementioned horrible creatures, and – this is the worst part—not use their cell phones for a whole week!

To build relationships, to teach and learn,
to give and accept valuable lessons.

Whatever the answer to these questions, there is no doubt that the yearly visit to the rural schools that NORTHLANDS sponsors in the northern province of Chaco, Argentina, has to do with Service Learning. Or learning service, depending on your perspective. Learning from service and learning to serve. They are inextricably bound in this type of experience. Perhaps this needs some clarification.

For more of twenty five years now, NORTHLANDS School, in keeping with its motto: “Friendship and Service”, has sponsored schools in this underprivileged area of our country. What does it mean to sponsor a school? For many, it would simply mean organizing fundraising events and sending donations once or twice a year to the rural school. For NORTHLANDS, however, the challenge was to turn this experience into a learning experience, where there would be hands-on experience, where students would be stretched and challenged to use their time, energy and resources for the project, and where there would be a real exchange with real people from another context.

This is what we call Service Learning. Students prepare activities each year to take to the rural school, activities to enhance the learning of the children we visit. These activities include art projects (using native plants, leaves, twigs, etc.), classroom work (maths and language activities), health and hygiene (brushing teeth, care for minor injuries, etc) and outdoor PE and recreational activities. Our students are challenged to understand the province they are visiting and explore some of the root causes of the poverty they encounter. They learn as they serve.

But they are also learning to serve. In the past, “Service” could mean a variety of things, but more than anything else, it meant giving material donations. Our experience, however, and the voice of professionals who have worked in development over the years, has taught us that giving is not always helping. Often, it only serves to compound the problems and create more conflicts and discord in a community. Not only that, but giving is often all too easy; there is no demand of your time, your skill, or your energy.

This is one of our primary reasons for visiting these schools in Chaco every year. To build relationships, to teach and learn, to give and accept valuable lessons. It may sound trite, but not one of the students who has travelled would tell you any different. After the relationship has been established, we begin to discuss the best way to serve the community. What is perceived as being the most important need? How can we provide tools and knowledge to fulfil that need? What are our own needs?

As a result of this approach, NORTHLANDS has, together with the teachers, students and parents of each rural school, implemented a number of small development projects in Chaco. Some of these are to provide access to clean drinking water, or construction projects to improve the learning environment in each school, vegetable gardens to provide for the school meals, goats and cows for milk, cheese and other products, and the list goes on . . .

Our Service Learning experience in Chaco has taught us, among many others things, to learn how to serve. And I have no doubt we will all be there again next year, comforts forgotten, teaching and learning in an unforgettable week we simply call: “The Chaco Experience”.

Steven Shannon, Olivos CAS Coordinator