As a struggling uni student, the last thing I wanted to do for my summer volunteering module was to pay to go abroad and volunteer. I was highly aware of my uni debt steadily climbing up as it was, and I didn’t have a part time job that paid well enough for me to go away for the summer.
I almost got a bit annoyed: why would I have to pay to do work? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t want to pay some company to make a profit off me doing good in the world. Now, a few years older, and a little bit wiser, I can say, in all honesty, with a heavy sigh… it’s worth it. I swear.
District 6 museum in Cape Town, part of a Cape Town tour for our volunteering project –>
They actually do need you Most volunteering projects do actually need you. Yes, you can call it bleeding heart tourism, but there are a lot of unhappy and unhealthy people out there that need support. And if it’s through a programme, then, at the very least, it has a chance of making lasting change. You going to a poor neighbourhood in country X and handing out dollar bills isn’t going to make a lasting impact. Joining a programme will do far more good.
You’re paying to be there because you being there costs money If you take your ‘labour’ out of the equation, you actually cost money. They need to house you and feed you (almost all volunteering programmes do… the ones we have anyway!). That costs money. Electricity, wifi, water, the house itself. Who is going to pay for that? The poor community, or the orphanage that you’re going to, they’re already stretched out to the max- so how can you expect them to pay for you as well?
It’s better to have volunteered and lost, than never to have volunteered at all. Yes I made this up. But I stand by it. People often tell me, volunteering is actually more for the person volunteering than for the people that are being helped. The sense of fulfilment and gratitude that you have, the new perspective, it’s all part of ‘I feel great for having made a difference’. Of course you get to feel that way.
Volunteering is as much for you as for the poor or disadvantaged. You get to learn and develop skills, and you also get to meet new people and really change your perspective on life.
And you get to help people, even if it’s for two weeks. I’m an avid believer in a Chinese concept called ‘yuan’, or, badly translated, connection. Life is based on connections that you have with people. You know that moment when you catch someone’s eye and for a second, both of you are the same person, or feeling the same feeling. That’s yuan. And being able to find yuan across cultures, that’s a priceless understanding for everyone involved. For me, I found instant yuan with a 6 month old baby at an orphanage that had finally come off a heroin addiction. She fell asleep peacefully in my arms, and for two hours, I could not let her go. I think about her often, when I need to readjust my perspective. She was this tiny ball of hope and love, and I could just feel the potential of her life in my arms.
When I talk to people from the so-called ‘third world’ countries, I often hear the same thing. ‘We want people to know about us. We want people to know our struggle.’ Well, volunteering is one of the best ways to do that. Yeah, you can hop in as a tourist and pose for the camera, but until you’ve spent a couple of weeks around the same people, doing what they do, supporting them in their life, you won’t really know their struggle. I remember coming back from South Africa, after even just a week, thinking, ‘I can keep this food and eat it tomorrow.’ Leftovers didn’t need to go in the bin anymore- it was still food, and it hadn’t gone off. There was no need to waste it while people were going hungry all around the world.
Being a volunteer is like being a beacon. Go out there, learn, and appreciate what you have, and help others. Create ‘yuan’ with people that you would never have met in your routine life back home. Shine that light of understanding and appreciation on to others; because I guarantee you, you will change. And others will see that change. Most importantly, don’t let your new connections down. Tell others their story, share their struggle. Don’t wince about having to save money for the trip, you’re doing what is necessary.