It’s trite to say that you better appreciate what you have when you see others who have less.
It’s hackneyed to say you’ve received more than you gave when you give to those who have less than you.
It’s condescending to believe that those who have fewer material goods are less well off than you.
So instead, let me focus on the unexpected lessons I learned from a visit to a Bali girls’ group home.
When I accepted the invitation from my friend Karleen to accompany her for a week-long vacation to Bali, I hadn’t realized the group home visit was part of the deal. But when she told me she’d like to see the girls she’d met there two years ago, I immediately said I wanted to go with her. I’d heard about this group home, the Widhya Asih #4, from two other friends who support it through Together We Can Change the World.
“Number 4” is unusual in that it houses 70 teenaged girls. Prior to our trip, I asked the group home manager, Tina, what the girls needed. The list included umbrellas, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and “girly” items — hair ornaments, lotions, shampoo, nail polish, etc.
Knowing my neighbors like contributing to others, I emailed them the wish list. Soon I received donations of new age-appropriate clothing, as well as 70 sets of handmade jewelry. These gifts were from neighbors I’d never met. Wow!
- Lesson learned: When you ask for a good reason, people will blow you away with what they contribute.
I connected with a colleague in Bali who I’d never met. When he heard of our wanting to visit Number 4 he immediately offered transportation, as it was an hour away from where we were staying. His wife and brother-in-law were our driver/guides.
- Lesson learned: Sometimes just sharing your plans evokes offers of help from others.
We’d told Tina our planned arrival time, so when we pulled up a bevy of girls greeted us with huge smiles and friendly attitudes. They seemed excited to have visitors and treated us like celebrities.
They politely introduced themselves, shaking our hands and asking our names. They had no trouble with “Rebecca” but “Karleen” was an uncommon name for them to remember. I illustrated it for them by saying “car” and placing my hands on an imaginary steering wheel, then leaned to the right — with my hands still on the non-existent wheel — as I said “lean.” They giggled and imitated me.
- Lesson learned: People will respond positively if you make it easy for them to remember unusual words.
Touring the facilities, we viewed their sewing room where they make items to sell through a US retail outlet. They supplement the group home’s revenue which enables more girls to attend school and have what they need to survive.
When asked to see their bedroom, several friendly girls revealed a neat, clean room the size of many Americans’ walk-in closet with 2 sets of bunk beds for 4 girls. A window looked out on a courtyard. Four stacking lockers stored each girl’s worldly belongings. I realized they didn’t react as I’d imagine some American kids would — embarrassed at how little they had — but instead they were proud of their room’s order.
- Lesson learned: Sometimes we forget how few possessions it would take for us to be happy.
We gathered the girls in a large semi-circle to distribute the gifts from our jam-packed suitcases. We unpacked the clothes, shampoo, toothbrushes, lotions, and other goodies. Tina explained that each girl would choose one item until everyone had something, then they would choose a second item. Some of the girls were busy doing chores so we saved some items to let them have a pick of treats.
My generous neighbor had donated teen items like jeans, t-shirts with rhinestones, sequined hats, cute tops, skirts and one special party dress. I was sure these would be the most coveted items.
At home while packing, I looked around for new items in my house that I thought might be useful to the girls. I’d bought some ankle socks in various colors that were still in the package, so threw them in. I separated each color so the girls could choose among the pink, purple and gray socks. To my amazement, a girl rushed to pick the gray pair when Tina told them to pick!
- Lesson learned: What may seem a top prize to you will be eschewed in favor of a lesser (to you) item, but will be a treasure to another. I’d never have guessed a pair of gray anklets would be valued over cute, fashionable tops and jeans.
The girl who chose the black party dress told others who also had admired it they could borrow it for special events when she wasn’t using it.
- Lesson learned: Some might think that having nearly no special belongings would cause one to be stingy and possessive. This girl showed that even though dressy clothes were rare in this environment, she could still be generous with her treasure.
The girls seemed appreciative of all our gifts, even toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss! Sometimes we undervalue utilitarian items thinking only fun gifts will be appreciated. But these girls seemed thrilled with everything we brought.
- Lesson learned: If you receive a gift that is more useful than fun, know that if you didn’t have the useful one it would make your life less comfortable. If you didn’t get a new toothbrush very often, receiving one is valued.
We hadn’t been there much more than an hour, but we’d had some sweet interactions with a number of the girls. We’d wished we could stay longer, but our driving hosts had a previous engagement. As we began our goodbyes, girls wanted their pictures taken with us and asked for our Facebook names so they could friend us.
- Lesson learned: Sometimes it doesn’t take long to feel connected with someone. If you are both authentic and open, you can touch each other’s hearts with a smile, an eye connection, and a little conversation.
My biggest lesson was to cement my philosophy to say “yes” to opportunities to help others when I can. It really does enrich our lives more than we could have possibly imagined.