Written by Jacqueline Woo
I hope that by sharing my story, you too can be inspired and re-evaluate what happiness and success means to you.
Both volleyball and dance were my two main, positive outlets in my life. However by the time freshman and sophomore year came around, I was finding it difficult to juggle volleyball and dance along with academics. School volleyball heavily conflicted with ballet, allowing me to only attend ballet class once every other week when, at my level, I was supposed to be dancing every day. As I grew weaker in ballet, I felt my skill in volleyball beginning to slip as well. This, combined with issues of bad coaching and teammates, eventually obliterated my self-confidence. I started questioning my worth as a team player and eventually as a person. Even after volleyball season ended, I found that this darkness began to seep into other aspects of my life. It was a never-ending cycle of continually picking out the negative things in other people, school and myself and then feeling selfish for being so hateful toward the world and everyone around me. I had no motivation to work hard in dance anymore, and I intentionally dissociated myself from friends. I felt guilty that I would only drag them down with me. During this time, I knew this was more than just a phase. I simply forgot what it felt like to feel joy. I was swallowed by a deep hole and felt defeated by the exhaustion of trying to climb out. I couldn’t find purpose or light in anything I did anymore.
During this time, I knew this was more than just a phase. I simply forgot what it felt like to feel joy.
I knew I needed a change. I craved a novel perspective in life, somewhere far and remote, away from my draining atmosphere at home. I figured that this time in my life was opportune to finally commit to a volunteer trip that I’d always wanted to go on. While looking into some programs, I remember falling in love with a video of smiling, joyful kids in Kenya. I wondered how people there could be so happy.
For three weeks the summer following sophomore year, I stayed in the Narok South District of Kenya, a rural town near the Maasai Mara National Park. It was as if a light switched on in me the day we first visited the Sikirar Primary School. We arrived in the lorry and a group of kids came running to greet us at the gates. Suddenly, I felt someone grab my hand, and I was dragged off by a young girl named Mercy into the school. I saw kids running in ragged clothes, kicking their torn soccer ball across the dusty field. They were dancing, singing, laughing. They each welcomed me with a friendly “Jambo!” and took turns holding my hand. The girls played with my hair, touched my clothing and face and taught me their own hand-clapping games. They invited me into their lives instantly and they smiled and laughed without a care in the world. At one point, Mercy hugged me and said, “I like you.” I suddenly felt tears swell in my eyes, not because I felt bad for these kids’ deprivation of essentials that we take for granted, but because I was touched by the immense amount of happiness they offered. It was as if their love of life overshadowed any of their hardships. I wondered how these kids lived such simplistic lives and experienced such endless joy. When I returned home, I found myself thinking, “I have never been this happy in so long.”
Kenya saved my life and continues to inspire me day after day. I now see through this looking glass that personal happiness begins with assigning value to the right things in life. I’m constantly reminding myself of the kids’ smiling faces and the gratitude I feel for them.
Kenya taught me something that I never could have learned back in the Silicon Valley bubble that I call home. In this community, we are primarily concerned with obtaining new things, and we often become blind to appreciating what we already have—our families and friendships. Those are the special connections that make life so beautiful and worth living. My time spent in Kenya didn’t change my hometown, but it has changed the way I perceive things, which matter the most.
Especially going back to a place like Gunn, a high school where many students define success in GPA numbers, SAT scores, awards and what colleges they go to, I’ve noticed a clear contrast in what we, as students, value and what make us “happy” and those of the students at Sikirar. People get easily upset when they don’t receive a specific score on a test or even if their favorite restaurant is closed late at night, but I think we can all look at the bigger picture and recognize that our worries are incomparable to those elsewhere in the world. My experiences have taught me that there is always something more important to be grateful for. This thinking has guided me to be more positive and to not take anything for granted.
Today, I lead a brighter life. I am optimistic about the future and view hardships as opportunities to learn and see situations from a different perspective. I’ve reconnected with friends, become more thankful to have access to an education with the opportunity to learn each day, and rekindled my passion for dance. I hope to continue to share with the world what Kenya had shared with me. I was led out of the darkness and into the light. Because of that, I will forever be grateful.