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Thus far, Duke Engage has been an experience like no other. From the start, I could tell this summer would challenge and reward me in new ways. A twenty-four hour travel day with a twelve-hour layover in the Chicago airport tested the absolute boundaries of my patience. However, that was merely on piece of my summer-long journey

When we, me and another member of my cohort, landed in Seattle at 11 pm PST, there was no time to rest. Immediately, the Seattle Link train swept us away to the University of Washington, my home for now. Sometimes I hate being from such a small town in North Carolina, but I must say I am grateful because the small things, which others take for granted, light me up with a childhood spirit. Riding a train from one end of a city to another captivated me. Like a six-year-old, I watched out the window as all of the skyscrapers overtook the sky. I eagerly asked my program director where to find the Seahawks stadium. The feeling of being on the West Coast excited and overwhelmed me: two months away from my small close-knit community, my home state, and the family which raised me to be as kind as I can be.

Beyond my new found life as a “city boy,” I am finding out what it means to go into life with blind faith. As a matter of fact, I only applied to DukeEngage because I craved something so different from my usual life and wanted an opportunity to serve others in a new capacity. When reading the description for DukeEngage Seattle, one does not even scratch the surface of what this program is about.

When I got my placement, I would be remiss to say that I was not intimidated. I would be spending the summer working for Amara, a Seattle foster care agency which traces its roots back to 1921. What do I know about the foster care system? What do I know about adoption? Even filling out the official application for employment, a question asked, “What are the needs of children in foster care?” Now, since it was simply a formality, I could have faked an answer like I have done many times at Duke. However, I pondered the thought for a while and realized I had no clue. My best guess could not even try to encompass this massive topic.

Another member of my group and I intern at Amara from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, a first for both of us. Our positions reside in the Post-Adoption Program, a new department of Amara which services children and families after the adoption process is complete. They understand that adoption is not a one-and-done deal: it is a lifelong process of emotions. Because of that, this program and our amazing bosses are paving the way for a new way to view adoption.

Our primary assignment at Amara is working on a new initiative, called Project Search and Reunion. In the past, adoptions were handled in a way that protected the adoptive family rather than servicing the adoptee. Therefore, social workers, out of unknown reasons, often used their best judgements and denied certain requests of birth parents and adoptees. In most cases, the law was against them even if they wanted to help. Now, Amara is auditing all of its somewhat 3,400 adoptions between 1950 and 1999 to find places of unresolved issues or disservice. This is a daunting task and even more so when one is involved.

I am no longer unsure of my place in this program. My work at Amara has already taught me more than any classroom could. It has shown me ways of human empathy, taught me valuable workplace and technical skills, and given me new perspectives on a previously uncharted world. Yet, the work is not easy. As I am reading files of kids adopted across the Twentieth Century, I stop and feel guilt. I feel guilty because I get to see parts of people’s stories that they will never get to see. I am allotted the opportunity to know intimate details about their ancestry and birth. Who am I that I should be given that right? What right do I have to others’ stories? To others’ truths?

Then, I see the great results. I see that service is not easy. It is not about finding great social media posts or “discovering yourself.” Service breaks you and reshapes you into something better. Service does not give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside without some sense of grief. To truly serve others, you have to put your heart on the line. That leaves it vulnerable to be broken. Yet the reward, the good that you can do for others, can repair even the most grief-stricken heart.

My summer experience so far has been everything I expected plus so much more that I never did, and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Maybe one day I will “settle in,” but I should not get too comfortable because life is amazing at uprooting you.