Gabriel Samandi and Jeffrey Garcia climb the Great Wall of China in July of 2016. Photo courtesy of Summer of Service.
Gabriel Samandi and Jeffrey Garcia climb the Great Wall of China in July of 2016. Photo courtesy of Summer of Service.

What do you see outside your window right now? Look around right where you are, and imagine the window you’re looking through was the only world you knew.

In today’s world, that window is also a TV screen or a smartphone that often portrays a simplistic reality. Yet these viewpoints shape everything about us – how we think, how we feel, how we imagine others. Those thoughts and attitudes shape how we carry ourselves and how we treat others.

Our viewpoint shapes how we see ourselves in our community and our world.

I founded Summer of Service (SOS) – an organization that educates San Antonio youth through community service (service-learning) and traveling abroad – with the belief that helping young people find new perspectives of themselves and the world around them will empower them to become positive change-makers in their own communities.

It was the view out of the window of a portable classroom at Nimitz Middle School in San Antonio’s Northeast Independent School District (NEISD) that changed how hundreds of local students are starting to see the world.

One energetic sixth grader, Julie, had just enough innocence and curiosity to ask a simple question: “What’s that?” she asked, as her eyes pointed at the travel brochure on my desk.

“It’s the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it’s amazing,” I said.

“Will you take us?” she asked. My entire classroom erupted in excitement as the planned lesson on geography morphed into a hypothetical field trip to France.

Before long, students were looking out the windows of their first plane ride, overlooking the wing of the plane, with the Andes mountains in the distance. They were looking out the window of a ferry boat, crossing the Aegean Sea on a tour of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. They were looking down 88 stories through a an observation deck window in Jin Mao Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Shanghai, China.

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In just a few days, during Summer of Service, these students will be looking through the stained-glass windows of Westminster Abbey in London and through the bulletproof glass protecting the Mona Lisa inside the Louvre Museum in Paris, and yes, the Eiffel Tower will be outside the window of our motor coach that guides us through Paris.

SOS has also, in coordination with the City of San Antonio’s International Relations Office, begun to develop programs that strengthen the bonds between San Antonio and its sister cities. Earlier this month, SOS took 27 student ambassadors, along with four teacher chaperones, to our sister city of Wuxi, China. Also, with the help of the International Relations office, we led a group of students from SOS, SAY Sí, and Gear Up to the Sister Cities International Youth Conference in Washington, D.C. These experiences have given San Antonio youth additional windows to the world around them through which they are able to gain new perspectives. With financial support, SOS plans to increase the number of Sister City experiences that we can offer to eventually include trips to all nine of San Antonio’s sister cities.

Of course there are risks in taking youth abroad, and getting them outside the illusion of safety in the classroom. Yet, in a world that is undeniably hurting, it is more important now than ever to build up our youth to be strong, courageous, and compassionate human beings with the capacity to see the interconnectedness of others.

Through SOS, we inspire youth to become better leaders through community service and travel abroad, so they can use what they learn to make themselves and their communities better.

A lot of people say that today’s youth lack the motivation or the grit to tackle the problems that face our communities, but through my work as a high school teacher at NEISD’s STEM Academy, I have seen what these kids are made of, and I believe that they have what it takes to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

In a more complex and interconnected world, our kids will face challenges and problems that have never been faced in the history of humanity. I started SOS because I know that by building more compassionate and capable young leaders through service-learning and travel abroad, we can prepare our youth to become global citizen leaders.

Realistically, finances limit how many students will be able to have these experiences abroad. Even with SOS helping students, families fundraising, and the nearly $10,000 the organization has awarded in scholarships, we at SOS understand that this is a special opportunity for these students.

However, we offer students another way to see through new windows.

SOS offers monthly service opportunities that we organize and supervise, designed for youth and powered by youth. By getting students out of the classroom and into the community, they pick up new insight on the challenges and opportunities that our own communities here in San Antonio face. They look out windows in parts of the city that they had only seen on the local news, and gain a new perspective on who their neighbor truly is.

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In June, SOS-ers were cleaning the windows of the SAMMinistries shelter, and peering into the windows of the Paul Jolly Adoption Center with SA Pets Alive! as they walked dogs, groomed cats, and cleaned the kennels. These experiences in the community with organizations like the Texas Diaper Bank and the San Antonio Food Bank give students a sense of empathy and empowerment, no matter what type of window they look out of when they go home. SOS offers these experiences to local youth for free.

SOS is more than a program – it’s a movement. We are students, teachers, parents, and community members from all walks of life, committed to the idea that through service to others, we can make ourselves and our community better. We also see the value in traveling abroad, to learn, serve, and explore far off places and cultures.

Through the process of serving others and learning about others, we actually learn more about ourselves and see that the most important window is the one that lets us see inside ourselves.

Top image: Gabriel Samandi and Jeffrey Garcia climb the Great Wall of China in July of 2016. Photo courtesy of Summer of Service. 

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Amir Samandi is the Founder and Executive Director of Summer of Service (SOS). SOS has performed thousands of hours of community service in San Antonio and abroad, in addition to having taken more than...