Standing in a circle of humans, linked by hands and stories, I experienced something profound as complete strangers poured their hearts out to one another. For me, this was a volunteering event, but for some others, this was a way to deal with a difficult loss.
Back in my elementary school years, I never paid much attention when my mother often talked to me about the importance of volunteering. I always thought that I could get involved in it later in life. Shortly after, my mom found an opportunity where both of us could get involved. Given my love for art and the mission of the organization focused on using art as a means to heal kids with cancer and their families, I immediately took to it. Little did I know then how rewarding and personally satisfying this service would actually be; and so, my journey began, shaping me into who I am today.
I admit, when I first began volunteering with the organization, I was nervous; I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. Soon though, I began volunteering and became a regular member, familiar with the program. It was my fourth workshop volunteering for the organization. My mom tried to prepare me for an emotional experience, like none other I had gone through before. This workshop was in partnership with Mission Hospice, and it was called “The Art of Remembrance.” It was focused on helping people to heal after suffering a loss.
On that crisp sunny morning, I began to work with the other volunteers, setting up rooms and the registration desk to receive participants People of all ages walked into the venue. There was an altar set up in the front of the boardroom dedicated to pictures of lost loved ones, or any important nostalgic memorabilia. After a quick check-in at the register, workshop participants were given an opportunity to choose from a variety of activities such as drawing, singing, dancing, drumming, writing to remember, and flag making. These sessions were integral to the process of healing.
As the youngest volunteer, I was unsure of exactly how I was going to help a group of apprehensive adults and kids. I co-led the group with another adult artist volunteer, into a room that was designated for making prayer flags. As I was entering this serene, dimly lit, and simply decorated space filled with chairs set in a semi circle, a level of anxiousness took over my being. How was I supposed to console these individuals who experienced such a life changing situation that I could not relate to?
As more people filed into the prayer flags room, they looked a little anxious. I couldn’t blame them. After all, they were about to dig through their memories and focus on a particularly painful one. Choosing my words carefully, I explained what prayer flags are, and how they are made. As people settled down to craft their prayer flags, some began to cry. I could clearly see a seven-year-old girl sitting close to me, overcome with emotion. I really didn’t want her to remember this as a negative experience, so I decided to talk to her, and help her with her flag. Engrossed in the art of making this flag, I noticed that the little girl eventually calmed down. She also told me a few things about herself, like how she loved to draw. This made my volunteer experience much more personal. I told her a bit more about prayer flags, which are inspired by a tradition of the Tibetan monks. These monks would string them and fly them in the Himalayas. Our prayer flags at the workshop were created for the purpose of remembering loved ones, and to think about everything they did to make you smile. The attendees began to reminisce about their lost loved ones.
At the end of three hours, all the teams wrapped up their activities and we gathered back in the boardroom, where it all started. The workshop directors shared a few words of gratitude. Then, the participants from the various workshops began tastefully placing their creations on the altar, as others played music and danced. It was a truly beautiful experience to see all of these strangers come together to lift each other up and honor their lost loved ones. Everyone gathered in a circle, and we said a few words that reflected our state before and after the workshop. So many people now had a more positive outlook on their lives from having participated in this workshop. Attendees were crying once again, but now these were tears of joy filling their eyes, because they had found healthy ways to remember their lost loved ones.
This workshop was a breathtakingly magical experience for me. Watching all the attendees go from hesitant to overjoyed by the end of the day was very fulfilling; it felt like I had made a difference in their lives. As I ponder over this unique experience, I realize that it holds a significant role in my personal development. It has given me the opportunity to help people in a way I never have before -- a life-altering way. When I was helping the young girl create her prayer flag for a parent, I was inspired by how strong she was. When I was helping the older men and women remember their lost child in a better light, I was inspired by their strength. These people who previously may have felt weak, now know that they are actually strong and amazing inspirations to others, including me.
However, to me, the most influential part of the entire experience was when everybody gathered in a circle, holding hands around the altar. People openly expressed how they felt, and they felt free to cry. It was heartwarming to see everyone feel reconnected with their lost loved ones. The act of holding each other’s hands in a circle symbolized how we as living beings are all connected in some way. This experience helped me realize that special bonds can be made by opening up to others through genuine connections.
All of the encouraging words expressed, emotions shared, and art that was created by these people who were mere strangers until then, made me realize how fundamentally similar we all are at a spiritual level, and how important it is to accept things that cannot be changed and embrace challenges that may come our way. Most importantly, we must support one another along the rocky trail that is life.
This piece was published with the permission of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.