Radical Service

This high school student group went to Europe on a service learning trip. It proved to be an incredible, life-changing event.

by Ryan Sparzak, Lead Educator and Director of Global Doing Good

Not all, but many students travel to Europe during their high school years.  It’s often a catalyst for further exploration and living abroad. When Front Range Christian School (FRCS) requested a trip to Europe, we were quick to come alongside and partner with them, knowing how transformative travelling in Europe can be.

The group leader really only had two expectations.  First, that the students spend time at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Second, that there must be a service learning component to this year’s practicum trip.  This proved to be an interesting extension to the tours we already do in Europe.  European trips come at a premium, so each day is packed to provide the maximum value for travelers.  The trip plan was met with a little skepticism.  Questions from within our own organization as well as at Front Range began to surface:

What would be the benefit of spending 2-3 days in one location serving while in Europe?

Couldn’t the students fulfill service requirements here in Denver to maximize their time overseas?

Is this a European history/culture trip or a service trip?

All reasonable questions, but upon reflection it ended up being one of the most impactful trips Global Travel Alliance has offered and most in line with our new emphasis on service learning.

Hearing our guide and teammate Brian Mathis unpack years of European and religious history in places like the Old City in Krakow, the Charles Bridge in Prague, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria did not disappoint (especially if we were all enjoying a Bavarian pretzel or some gelato). Nor did the powerful experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau (check out my blog post on our time there, or some of the students reflections).  But the learning and the context took on new meaning for the students when we arrived at the service location in Kroegis, Germany.

The Steiger team welcomed us with open arms.  It was in our interactions with them that the we began to understand how deep the effects of this massive application of communism went, and the importance of the work we would be doing over the next couple of days. The Steiger International facility here was once a farm co-op under communism and when the wall fell, laborers literally left their posts and never came back.  The buildings were already shoddily built, but to then be completely unmaintained furthered the dilapidation.

Steiger Kroegis is a training facility for those working youth in the arts community.  Within this subset of people, especially in Eastern Europe, there are high rates of unemployment, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse.  Steiger works to combat this hopelessness.  Our work would be preparing the facility for the yearly summer training for individuals working with Steiger from all over the world.

As our bodies recovered from the scrubbing, heavy lifting, and shoveling we shared daily meals and conversations with the Steiger staff that had left their homes in the U.S., Ukraine, Poland, and Holland to live devoted to Steiger’s mission.  Here were individuals and families that were living out a Radical, fully alive lifestyle, but actually seemed pretty normal.  Our temporary discomfort paled in comparison to their service and sacrifice, yet it encouraged them and linked us to their work throughout the world.

It is tempting to overemphasize the service experience and say it was “the highlight.”  Some could argue that the German sausage and gelato was at the top of the list.  However, many of the students walked away with a deeper appreciation for what it means to serve, and stronger frameworks to help them understand the concepts and images they learn and see in the classroom.  Realistically, all aspects of the trip worked together to create a shared learning experience for us all that was, well, radical.

Check out the itinerary here (we did make a few tweeks).

Watch the video summary of the trip here (our Polish driver played this song at least 30 times).

Check out my blog post on my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau.