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Blog: Service Learning Tours

Our Year 9 students took part in Service Learning tours during the holidays, immersing themselves in local communities in Borneo, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and the East Kimberley region of Australia.

The tours followed itineraries that were organised in partnership with the Rustic Pathways organisation. Here is what some of our Year 9 students had to say about their experiences.

KylaR

Kyla travelled to Borneo. She said, “I think Service Learning was different for all of us. No matter what previous adventures we’d had, we all had little moments of realisation and understanding about the countries we visited. My group went to Sabah in the northern state of Borneo. It was evident that some of us hadn’t really explored less developed countries before, and that culture shock stayed with us throughout our trip. In some places, it wasn’t what we were used to, and the poverty in some areas was confronting at times. Learning to purify our water, we adapted to the new country so that we could enjoy our trip.

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If you ask any student who went on this trip what the main highlights were, all of them would say playing with the children we met in the village we stayed in. This was an integral part of our learning. It’s easy to compare how different our lives are, how different the places are, but it’s important to acknowledge that we are not very different from one another. Despite the language and cultural barrier, we played many great games together, and when it was time to say goodbye, we were all sad. 

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In between our 8-hour bus trips to and from the village, we saw an endless pattern of palm oil trees. Some cut, some small, some fully grown, they stretched into the horizon in perfect diagonal lines. Occasionally there would be smoke coming from palm oil mills. This is a major problem in Borneo and in many hot, humid rainforest areas, which are the only places suitable to grow palm oil. This means that biodiverse rainforest areas are destroyed for plantations, and wildlife is either killed or forced to move out. As Borneo has an incredible variety of wildlife, this is extremely debilitating to the country. Curious, we asked our taxi drivers and guides about it. It’s not even economically sustainable either; the locals were ripped off again and again as the prices got cheaper and cheaper. Fortunately, new rainforest land being turned into plantations is now illegal in Sabah, so hopefully this will at least stop the harm from going any further.

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Even when we were snorkelling - our ‘rest and relaxation’ - there was a moment of realisation about Sabah. In this one spot there was a line, a current of rubbish and litter. I picked up a plastic rubbish bag and clipped it onto my lifejacket, and literally 10 seconds later we saw a turtle. That turtle could have easily mistaken the plastic for a jellyfish. This worried me. It made me think about how dangerous we are making our seas, both in Australia, as well as overseas.

We took our luggage to Borneo, but we brought back so many memories and so much more awareness than we ever could have received from staying in Australia.”

HelenaW

Helena also travelled to Borneo. She said, “The trip was an unbelievable opportunity. We arrived at Kota Kinabalu, tired from the long flight. We stayed overnight before making our way to a local village. Seeing the children so happy to see us was one of the most amazing things about the trip to Borneo. Despite the language barrier, they were jumping for joy to be with us. Our service was to cut grass that was stopping trees from growing. I found it very tiring, but it was rewarding at the end when we saw the amount of land we’d cleared. The next day, we collected different types of seeds and went bushwalking with buckets to pick more seeds. Our living arrangements at Borneo were different from what we were used to. This made me appreciate the facilities and things we have at home. Learning about the culture was another fantastic experience that I gained from this trip. Watching people’s everyday lives in another country, especially in the village, was very different. The villagers were kind enough to perform a traditional cultural dance for us that we thoroughly enjoyed. They even encouraged us to join in. We were clearly not as good as them, but the villagers were happy that we took part. This trip really helped us to bond together as a group. We learnt new things about each other every day. Overall, I believe that my trip to Borneo was successful, giving me a chance to see a part of the world that is completely different to Australia.”

CharlotteWBronteH

Charlotte and Bronte travelled to Thailand. They said, “We were lucky to travel on an unforgettable trip to northern Thailand. We immersed ourselves in the rich culture and people there, in both Chiang Mai and the rural village we stayed in. During the trip, we participated in service, team bonding, interacting with a local village and sightseeing. We learned so much about a place that is so different to Australia and gained many new perspectives.

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When in Thailand, we had the opportunity to stay in a rural village, where English was not the spoken language. This exposed us to the wonderful lives of the local people. The villagers lead simple lives compared to us, living in small houses with a maximum of three rooms, often living with many relatives and minimum electricity. Most of the toilets were outside the house. They were mainly squat toilets and the showers were bucket showers. The villagers rode in and out of the village on the dirt road on motorbikes, often with their children and sometimes their whole families on board.

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We were divided into groups of three or four and assigned to a family, whose house we stayed in for the next four nights. This was a challenge for us as we struggled to speak any Thai and especially the local dialect, and our family did not speak English either. Every morning and afternoon, we were greeted by our hosts with a simple ‘Sawadee ka’, meaning ‘hello’. We felt very welcome and safe in the village and understood why Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, as when walking to and from the construction site along the main street of the village, we received a ‘Sawadee ka’, a Wai (head bow and hands together) or a smile from every local along the way.

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From this experience, we discovered so much about Thailand’s beautiful culture and feel so privileged that we got this amazing opportunity. The main thing we learned was that the locals of the village lead very rich lives which aren’t defined by their bank account or material things. They do not live their lives ‘wrong’ or in an ‘unfulfilling’ way, and neither do we. We just live differently.”

AlexBAllyBZoeC

Alex, Ally and Zoë went to Cambodia. They said, “Our Service Learning trip to Cambodia was one of the best and most impactful experiences of our lives. For the first two nights of the trip, we stayed in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Afterwards, we stayed in a floating house in the floating village Prek Toal, where we completed our service project, which was to build two floating houses in three days. To conclude the trip, we stayed in Siem Reap.

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For many of us, the Prek Toal village was a highlight. There we met the homestay families and played games with many of the children, which they really enjoyed. Although there was a language barrier, we were still able to communicate. Hand and facial gestures became very useful. By staying in the village, we were able to get a glimpse of traditional Cambodian life. This gave us an appreciation of how different our lifestyle is back in Australia. We also had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Cambodian culture where we tried new foods, visited local markets and temples, including the famous Angkor Wat.

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Another highlight which stood out on this trip was visiting the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields. It was horrifying to learn about the Khmer Rouge and their devastating reign over Cambodia, which resulted in millions of Cambodians losing their lives. Shockingly, there is very little knowledge about this genocide around the world.

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On this trip, we made new connections and gained many fond memories, which we will never forget. This trip was made even more enjoyable by the fact that everyone from Wenona got on really well. We are very grateful to Wenona for giving us this opportunity to explore overseas through a Service Learning trip. Thank you to Ms Webb, Ms Russell and our Rustic Pathway leaders for making this an experience of a lifetime.”

EmilyMEssieF

Emily and Essie went to the East Kimberley region. They said, “Thirteen keen girls headed off to the Kimberley’s along with Ms Minifie and Ms Collier. We were all very excited about our week ahead, full of service in Kununurra and getting to know a whole different part of our country. The purpose of the experience was to make an impact on the local community in Kununurra, as well as challenge ourselves by stepping out of our comfort zones. Going into this trip, we had no idea how much of a rewarding and gratifying week we were taking part in. It was the experience of a lifetime.

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As part of our service, we had the opportunity to interact with kids, learn about their culture and assist the community of Kununurra. We also visited some of the most amazing and spectacular scenery, including Emma Gorge, El Questro, Zebedee Hot Springs, Lake Argyle and Kelly’s Nob. All the different locations we experienced made us appreciate our country more and the natural beauty around us. The service component of our trip was to make a positive impact on one of the local communities, Kununurra. We helped by participating in small projects that made a big difference. The projects included helping in the community garden, doing a rubbish clean up and playing with kids on school holiday camps. We played in a basketball competition with the kids, went fishing with some local girls, and organised a dinner for the kids and their families in the Kununurra skate park, which was rewarding for both the families and all us girls.

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Having been on this program, we have seen another side of Australia and experienced a different culture, which has made us become more grateful for what we have and what we are provided with back home. To know you are helping people who are less fortunate in your own country is both incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. Our group of girls have made so many wonderful memories both together and with the citizens of Kununurra and being able to explore a small part of a spectacular part of Australia was an amazing opportunity.”

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ChloeK

Chloe travelled to Laos for her Service Learning trip. She said, “This experience was a once in a life-time opportunity and it was definitely worth the long lead up to it. My friends and I would discuss how excited we were to go and help and have an opportunity to give back to these communities. Little did we know the difference between looking at photos and hearing about it compared to actually living in it.

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When we first arrived in Laos it was hot, and a completely different atmosphere compared to Sydney. We travelled four hours through green lands and long narrow roads to where we would begin our service. Eventually we arrived at the village. Straight away the locals were welcoming and kind and at this point I was so excited to help and connect with these people. The main reason for this trip was to assist the villagers with building a Kindergarten classroom. The service we undertook took three days. In this time, we dug up dirt, put together reinforcement and made concrete by hand. This was obviously a challenge -especially in the heat and sun - but, we all worked together to get as much as we could done. Something that really amazed me was when we were doing our service, we had to make a chain to pass rocks up to the construction site. We had a limited number of students to make the chain, so it was not quite efficient until we were joined by the locals to help us extend the chain and pass the rocks up quickly. This was a great moment, enabling us to see just how selfless and considerate these people are. After staying in the village, we made our way back to Luang Prabang to explore some of the amazing and unique things Laos has to offer until we had to leave. Overall this was an amazing trip to be a part of and I am extremely grateful to have been given an opportunity like this.”

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LucyR

Lucy also travelled to Laos. She said, “The eight days we spent in Laos was an amazing experience. We returned with a lifetime of memories and a changed perspective on our own lives. Not only did we travel to a unique part of the world, but were given the opportunity to make a difference, however small to peoples’ lives and experience the satisfaction this brings.

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Our time in Smet Noy, a village high in the mountains, was for me the highlight of the trip. Yes, we didn’t have flushing toilets and were sticky from head-to-toe from sunscreen and bug spray, but we were welcomed into the community with open arms and treated with nothing but kindness. Families moved out of their homes to accommodate us, and during our service project, children came unasked to help us haul buckets of rocks from the road. People live with so little, one-roomed houses and few possessions, yet they greeted us with smiles. My most special moments were spent with children, playing and dancing. Each smiled and squeezed tightly with their little hands. It was so rewarding seeing their joy copying our dance-moves and running around in circles. One boy I played with could have spent hours trying to high-five me as I pulled my hand away at the last minute or held it so high making him jump. It was such a simple game, yet he never got bored but grinned and giggled when I was too slow. I felt so moved when he came to find me the next day and grabbed my hand to start playing again.

It was also clear how grateful their parents were and happy to see their kids having fun. While we danced around the classroom, parents watched through the windows, clapping along. This experience taught us that life is so much more than material possessions and more about people and embracing the little things. We returned with a changed perspective. In our leaving ceremony, many of us said that we were going to live every day grateful for what we have. In some ways, it feels as though we gained more than we gave, being gifted with a memorable experience and inspired by the happiness and resilience of the villagers.”

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KateAMiaC

Kate and Mia said, “We were given an amazing opportunity to go to Laos for our Service Learning trip. We stayed in the beautiful village of Smaet Yai, surrounded by mountains. For our service we built the foundation of a water tank, specifically beneficial for a community where there is a lack of reticulated water. Whilst mixing cement, bending wire, and creating wire scaffolds, the village chief, engineer and some of the women helped us. This sense of community was something very different to what we encounter here in Sydney. It was hard work in the hot sun and definitely challenging, but we were all motivated to finish what we started. After finishing, we shared a sense of accomplishment and achievement about our project, knowing it will make a difference. We, and the villagers, had worked together for something that would genuinely benefit the village: an experience truly unique to our time in Laos.

While working, we saw Lao children holding hands walking to their school. Initially, they stared at us suspiciously, no doubt wondering who we were and what we were doing. But, after we smiled and waved saying “Sabaidee” they would break out in shy grins. The experience we had playing ‘duck duck goose’ and ball games with the kids in the evening, despite not knowing a word of each other’s language, was really special.

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Upon leaving the village, we were lucky enough to experience part of Lao culture through the leaving ceremony the village held for us. Kids in full costume and make-up performed a traditional dance, and the village elders, chief and kids individually tied strings around each of our wrists, wishing us good fortune and health. We felt very moved and touched that the village recognised our service, and personally wanted to thank us. It was also interesting to see first-hand, different traditions of a culture other than our own.

Service Learning enabled us to form connections with kids from a starkly different life and culture. They took delight in things that most of us had forgotten about or taken for granted. This experience was incredibly humbling and taught us many life-long lessons.”