Volunteering – Why Are You Really There?

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As I set off for Argentina a few weeks ago, bags packed, Spanish polished and ready to go, there was no doubt in my mind why I was going: to do something worthwhile and help change people’s lives for the better. That’s why anyone does volunteer work, right?

I managed to maintain this illusion for a couple of weeks, until I was asked to spend my Sunday helping out at a local project: Centro Cultural el Perro. The center functions as an artists’ workshop for local young people; an attempt to break them out of the cycle of drugs, crime and prison which is so often perpetuated in the poorer areas of Buenos Aires. By giving young people a space to be creative, and a chance to make some money, the founders of the center hope to motivate the local youth to strive for something better in their lives. I was excited to find out that I would be getting my hands dirty, working on the garden they were building there. The center’s garden will eventually be used to grow herbs and vegetables, which can then be sold to both the local community and the hospital.

We pulled up early on a Sunday morning, ready to really make a difference in this community garden. There were a few other foreign volunteers like myself, as well as several people who volunteer full-time at the project. As the day got started, I began to feel frustrated at how slowly things were moving, and annoyed that there wasn’t…well…more for me to do. The permanent volunteers were picking up a lot of the slog (they already knew where everything was, what needed to be done, and how to do it) and we one-off volunteers were left scraping dirt from a path and occasionally pick-axing some ground.

At the end of the day’s work, the garden looked totally transformed, but I didn’t feel as though I had had much to do with that at all. I felt slightly unfulfilled. And that was when it hit me (along with a huge wave of guilt); I wanted to feel like I had made a huge difference to this project, so that I could feel really good about myself. I couldn’t shake the selfishness of this feeling for several days.

The real motivation for volunteering abroad should be to help the people you have traveled there to help, not to feel good because you built some tangible thing all by yourself. We were put to use as seen fit by the people who work at that cultural center day in and day out. They weren’t concerned with making sure we had a fulfilling experience, but rather with making sure that the job got done, and that time wasn’t wasted letting some inexperienced volunteers build a greenhouse when there were capable builders within the group.

So, an important lesson was learned: when volunteering abroad, always go with the expectation of using your time to help others in whatever capacity is seen fit. Be selfless. You aren’t there to feel good about yourself; you’re there to help. By keeping my expectations at this much more reasonable level, I have gotten infinitely more out of the experience than I would have otherwise, and probably been a whole lot more useful as well.

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