Youth Stories

What I Learned About the Difference between Charity and Solidarity

by Sydney Kuppenbender

This blog is a part of "Student Perspectives on Global Citizenship Education", a series of blogs by Saskatchewan high-school students reflecting on their experiences through the Global Citizen Youth Leadership Program, an immersive, international solidarity tour from Saskatchewan to El Salvador, and back again.



One year ago, my guidance counsellor approached me with an application form for SCIC’s Global Citizen Youth Leadership (GCYL) program. I took immediate interest in the program, and promptly completed the application with enthusiasm. What I didn’t know, however, was that I had just embarked upon a journey that would extend well past my return to Canada on August 8, 2015.

My trip to El Salvador was, in fact, merely the beginning of a life-changing adventure that would leave me scrambling to rediscover my perspective on both local and global issues, and to reconsider my life path, as I found myself unable to pursue my original career choice due to my shift in paradigm.

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Saskatchewan and Salvadorean youth playing a

team-building game in El Zapote, Cabañas, El Salvador.

The GCYL program is unique in design and delivery compared to others of its kind, as its focus is on solidarity and targeting the root causes of social injustice issues, rather than a charity-based approach often employed by many "voluntourism" organizations. I was fortunate enough to learn first-hand the difference between these two approaches, and how each can benefit or harm developing countries in both the short and long term.

Despite the language barrier, we learned and discussed with the Salvadoran people different issues faced by citizens of both Canada and El Salvador, and discovered many parallels in the realities regarding discrimination and struggles for different ethnic, racial or cultural groups. It was a meaningful and humbling experience to hear many stories, first-hand, about some horrific tragedies in the lives of these strong, resilient people, and to witness their appreciation for the process of discussion and healing that we shared together in solidarity. It was also uplifting to celebrate the triumphs with the motivated and passionate youth of Santa Marta and Izalco who have experienced success in initiating positive change within their communities.

I distinctly remember visiting other countries as a younger adolescent and, upon my return home, feeling as though I had missed a vital part of the cultural experience, although I couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what it was that I was missing. After my trip to El Salvador, I can say with conviction that the intercultural experience I was missing can only be gained by living, day-in and day-out, with locals.

GCYL leaders Kayla Blakely (left) and Sydney Kuppenbender (right) sharing a

meal with Erick, a local participant in programs run by the Institute of Women's

Development, Research, and Training (IMU) in San Salvador, El Salvador.

The local community invited us into their homes with open arms, sharing with us what little resources they had which was humbling and honouring for us as newcomers. For two weeks, we lived with host families and struggled to come to terms with their lifestyle and daily realities that didn’t involve modern “conveniences” such as running water or consistent electricity. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and miss the semi-regular showers, dance parties with my host family, and eating meals outside with our group and locals while conversing in broken English and Spanish.

Among other things, the GCYL program to El Salvador was the most humbling experience of my life for so many reasons. The main reason being that soon after arriving in El Salvador I realized that the people are neither helpless nor unable to voice their needs. Although I thought I understood the fundamentals of the term “international development”, its true meaning sunk in after our first day in El Salvador, when we visited the indigenous Izalco tribe in San Salvador. I began to realize that these people were not only completely capable of voicing their needs to others, but they were extremely open to sharing them with us.

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GCYL Youth visiting with members of the Pipil indigenous community of Izalco,

learning about local history and youth-led community development projects.

This exercise in listening, learning, and sharing is one that helped me realize that we were not there to share stories of our privilege and life from back home, but rather to interrogate our understandings of self in the world. We were not perceived as, nor did we feel like we were the “heroes” from North America coming to their country to impose North American values and understandings about what they need.

I didn’t realize that by sharing and listening we could be supportive and help uplift people through their healing process. What many don’t realize is that just because the war has ended, doesn’t mean the people aren’t still fighting battles, both personally and within their own communities for human rights and against social injustice issues that exist despite the government’s claims of peace and prosperity.

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GCYL youth from Saskatchewan alongside youth leaders

from the Pipil indigenous community of Izalco.


Upon my return home, my hypothetical bubble had been popped. This bubble had been shielding me from the reality of social injustices and from my responsibilities as a global citizen that I now suddenly felt compelled to fulfill. My choice of career path changed drastically; forever the athlete, I had until that point been looking at pursuing a career in Kinesiology. After my trip, however, my focus changed and I am now seeking post-secondary education in global health, maybe getting a Medical Degree specializing in public health or infectious diseases. Additionally, I found myself making small changes in my lifestyle to suit a more sustainable and ethical way of living, such as taking shorter showers and choosing Fair Trade/Organic over other brands, while encouraging my peers to do the same.

Finally, I traveled around the province this fall with my fellow youth leaders screening a documentary about our journey and sharing our experiences with students in an effort to enable awareness and initiate change among our fellow youth. After all, it is the new generation of global citizens that will initiate the positive change needed to better our world.



Sydney Kuppenbender is a student at Churchill Community High School in La Ronger, SK. Sydeny was one of eight Saskatchewan youth leaders that traveled to El Salvador in the summer of 2015 through SCIC's Global Citizen Youth Leadership (GCYL) Program to learn about the work of SCIC member PWRDF, and their local partner CoCoSI. Upon returning to Canada, Sydney and her fellow Youth Leaders undertook a speaking tour across Saskatchewan to share their reflections with their peers and communities. Learn more here.