2021 Interact Award Winner: Learning through service

By Isabelle Oh and Meththa Sumanasekara, Balwyn High School Interact Committee, Australia

Editor’s note: this essay was submitted to Rotary International’s 2021 Interact Awards.

Walking down Flinders Street, the constant banging of coins echoed in my ear. I took in a sharp breath as the harsh clinking carried on, before it was lost to the blare of trains as I entered the station. Taking one last glance back, his hopeful eyes met my own, mouthing a soft ‘thank you’ amidst the bustle of the city. All around us, waves of people marched on, lost in their own world, seemingly oblivious to the signs and blankets that they loomed over. It was a sea of eyes, yet the orbs remained glued to their screens, pointedly averted from the people sitting below them.    

The constant buzz finally faded when I hopped into the train and was hit instantly with a gush of warm air. As I huddled with my parents, coats thrown haphazardly across our laps, I gazed towards the receding line of towering buildings. A shiver rose up my spine as I watched the greys and dull blues of the city fade and blur into one another, followed immediately by a twang of pain for the people living within that cool, unforgiving environment.   

The train sped up now, and with it, my thoughts followed suit. I’d only donated to one person… How many others were left to fend for themselves? I felt something brewing inside of me, something fueled by a fierce drive to help the others who I’d briskly walked past at the train station. These thoughts coalesced into one, and I knew I had to act. My school’s leadership team entrusted me to carry the torch as the Interact President this year—this was my opportunity to ensure that I, alongside my fellow Interactors, am able to keep the flame alive, and warm up the lives of those closest to us by advancing Rotary’s cause.     

The memory of the man remained ingrained within me in the days following, rising to the forefront once more as I perused an old copy of a school newsletter. As my eyes skimmed through the pages, the section on Rotarians belonging to Rotary Club of Canterbury volunteering at a FORaMEAL event caught my eye. Enthusiasm radiated through their smiles as they worked side by side, packing meals for disaster-stricken areas within the Philippines. Turning to investigate and digging deeper, I came to learn that a portion of these meals were being redirected this year, in order to assist those affected the most by the COVID-19 pandemic in Melbourne.    

I immediately contacted the Rotarians and the rest of the Interact board, knowing this was the key to not only building a bridge with our global neighbors, but also aiding those closer to home. Collaborating together, we introduced the idea at our club meeting to plan and prepare for our participation within a FORaMEAL packaging event. Emails shot out in a frenzy, as each Interactor became electrified by the thought that they too would be able to be the change they wanted to see in the world.    

Rounding the corner, a buzz of excitement filled the air. I was welcomed with the chatter of other students, as more and more volunteers milled around, eagerly discussing the event that was waiting ahead of us.    

With a start, the doors finally opened, and with it came the ebullient greetings of the Rotarians running the day. With a few short words they soon set us to work, and I found myself surrounded once more with my peers. Pack by pack, the grains, lentils and rice were slowly but surely packaged away, work made merry as I got to know the people around me. Passion shone within them, and I realized how like-minded we were, as we united together in our goal to provide our services to those less fortunate.    

As the last of the boxes was filled to the brim, I looked around me, back aching but heart beaming with pride. I basked in the warmth that lightened the room as everyone hurrahed at what we had achieved, and I felt something surge inside of me as well. I knew the joy felt here today would not be limited to OneChurch, where the initiative took place, instead extending all the way out into inner Melbourne too, reaching the lives of those who I had walked past in the train station that day. 17,000 meals packed today… 17,000 meals which would enable more people to sustain themselves, improving their quality of lives to a level which we as humans all deserve. The immense scale of our FORaMEAL volunteering means that this wide-reaching issue of hunger is able to be tackled more greatly, with nutrients found in the grains and rice within the packs, making their way to those who faced difficulty receiving them during the COVID-19 restrictions.    

Upon reflection of this opportunity, I stumbled upon Rotary’s service-learning course. The striking resemblance between the values it promoted, and my Interact club’s own FORaMEAL project struck me with a start. Compassion to investigate the food insecurity challenges we face within both our community and global environment. Dedicated commitment towards planning a project which addressed this issue. Zeal in taking action to initiate this project and the volunteering entailed. And above all, a reflection of the pivotal role service plays in the lives of those around us. Whether it be service to people like the man encountered at the train station, or even service to ourselves, through the greater understanding gained about the struggles of food insecurity, my Interact Club and I have truly grown to appreciate how learning through charity has developed us as leaders of the future.   

And that takes us to now, as I sit here with my team, writing about how one simple meal can demonstrate the love and solidarity of an entire community. I’m taken back to that eye-opening day once more, where hope had glistened in that man’s eyes.  Now, with words pouring out about everything we had achieved, it reaches my own orbs too.

Congratulations to the 2021 Interact Award winners! This year’s award categories included essays, videos, and photos. View the finalists and winners here: https://on.rotary.org/2021InteractAwards.

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