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Although it feels like forever, only seven weeks ago I was an excited and giddy DukeEngage participant starstruck by a mind-numbingly beautiful island called Kauai. Surrounded by towering mountains, crystal clear blue waters, and ever-present rainbows, I had no choice but to be both insanely excited to be there and irrationally confident that I could really make an impact on this amazing place through my own hard work and dedication.

As the program and my time in Kauai progressed, however, I started to become less optimistic about  both the impact I was having on this place and whether the Kauai community really even needed or wanted my help.

On one of the first days of work, my co-workers and I visited a community leader of Kauai that was spearheading recovery efforts after the devastating flood event that occurred in April (other blog posts from the program explain the impact of this event in more detail). As we listened to her stories of incredible community perseverance in the face of life-changing damage, I was particularly struck by a common theme of individual reluctance to accept help even from lifelong friends and neighbors.

She explained one situation in which community volunteers repeatedly visited a man’s home to aid him with cleaning and repairing the physical structure of his house, but were consistently turned away. He insisted that his neighbors were in greater need of help, and that he should be able to handle his individual situation himself. When he finally asked for help, the volunteers were shocked to discover standing water with human feces inside his home containing bacteria that had caused infections in his leg in several places. While this story is an extreme case,  residents throughout the Kauai community after the flood consistently refused help despite often being in dire need of it.

In the face of the proud and self-reliant culture of the people of Kauai, what role does DukeEngage really have? Is it right for Duke students who essentially have no ties to the land to tell the residents of Kauai who have been self sustaining for generations that they need and should accept help? How can we expect people to accept help from outsiders when they are too proud and unselfish to accept help from their own lifelong friends and neighbors?

While I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, I do know that the Kauai residents that have accepted aid from us deserve recognition. Despite the focus on the bravery of DukeEngage students who dive head-first into foreign cultures, it is even braver for the community partners and native people to accept help from those who were complete strangers only a few weeks ago. By accepting our help despite their culture of proud independence, they are allowing us to learn and are doing more of a service to us than we could ever do to them.