Profile :: Service Learning

The Mona Foundation - Socio-Economic Development

Cape Town, South Africa


Cape Town, South Africa - 2004

Elham Simmons, Class of '04

Double Major: CHID & Polisci



This winter quarter I had the incredible opportunity of studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. This poem (see right-hand column) is a product of that experience. I remember writing it after a long week volunteering in a township high school, and then studying for the midterm on the history of the struggle against apartheid. I was overcome with the newness of the nation, but also its beauty, fragility, and dynamism. Sitting pen in hand, I felt my ideas about service, leadership and community involvement had been wiped clean and replaced with an overwhelming sense of humility. Humility and responsibility. It was a new type of responsibility, however, not the kind that said 'leadership means: being really involved, doinglots of community service, and trying to get others to do the same.' Rather, it tied me back to the elders that made our society and forwards to the generations to come, and the awesome importance of preparing them socially, intellectually, and spiritually for the crazy, fragile world they will inherit.

In the last eight months, traveling and studying abroad in Turkey, Bulgaria, France and South Africa, I started to sense what is implied by the oneness, the unity, and the interconnectedness of all of humanity.  I have always tried to live by the idea that for there to be any significant improvement in the conditions

of the world and its people, a ‘fundamental change of consciousness’ is necessary.  Every individual must learn to see themselves as a united member of the human family and responsible for the welfare of every member of that family.  This implies a movement towards service, sacrifice, and action, and away from competitive individualism, unbridled nationalism, and empty discourse.  So I went headfirst, a young, idealistic do-gooder into the edgy, overwhelming South African mix.  It was so much all at once.  I realized (the hard way) I could not transform the education system, get funding to all the needy NGOs, and bring cultural sensitivity to students everywhere.  But I could start small, impact one life, and learn.

That is what I did with Michael, an 82-year-old Cape Malay man I met at a gathering of my religious community.  We had an instant connection.  I interviewed him for a class assignment; he asked me over for tea and coffee.  Tea and coffee that week turned into tea, coffee, biscuits, dinner, house cleaning, story telling, picture sharing, singing, and laughing every Thursday until I left, six weeks later.  We blossomed! He began keeping his house clean, repairing relations with family members, inviting more people over, getting out more, learning to cook, and making constructive long-term plans.  He taught me about sincerity, sacrifice, and how making a difference starts with one person.  Half way through, a local friend of mine started coming along on the visits.  I am happy to hear he has continued visiting Michael and is taking others, too.

Leadership is not projects and outcomes.  For me, leadership is a way of doing things.  Whether I am volunteering in a high school or just interacting with friends, I have chosen to be a leader in the way I live my life.  So when they ask me about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, or engaging in service and international understanding, I do not tell them how to live their lives, but how I live mine.  And I can feel confident that it is a way conducive to the betterment of the world- no matter how small the scale.

This quarter I am doing an unpaid, no-credit internship with Hands for a Bridge, the Roosevelt High School group that conducts cultural and student exchanges with the high school I volunteered at in Cape Town, Isilimela Comprehensive. I hope to encourage those students, share my own experiences with them, keep a connection with the students and teachers that taught me so much in South Africa, and, above all, learn from these students here in Seattle.  I graduate this June, but over the summer I hope to help them with fundraising.  Then in the Fall I may start with Education For Peace in Bosnia, an NGO integrating peace education and global citizenship curriculum into all the schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At this point in my life, being a leader means being willing to start small, start local, and while humbly acknowledging the immensity of the task ahead, also realizing everyone has the gifts and capacities to meet that challenge, and we all are blessed with the responsibility of bringing those gifts out in each other; one by one, person by person, day by day.