Volunteering: Dream Vs Reality
Peace Corps, from start to finish, took nine long months. During this time, I dreamed about what my service would be like, where they would send me, and what my projects would be. I envisioned myself in a tropical paradise, the scent of exotic flowers wafting on a gentle breeze as I worked with a local co-op of women, marketing and selling coffee. Or in a beautiful town nestled into the mountain side where I would lead community meetings and everyone would listen to me and my ideas would be met with enthusiasm. Although I did serve my two years in a beautiful town nestled into the mountain side, the meetings were not always well attended, the work not always finished, the projects not always successful. I never pictured myself, sweating and exhausted, digging vegetable gardens and mixing a hundred pounds of organic fertilizer under the punishing mid-day sun. There are a few realities one must face when volunteering abroad, and some of them are not always pleasant. However, all of them are worth it.
Reality #1: Getting there isn’t always easy. Transportation in developing countries is usually hit or miss, even more so if you select a project in a rural community. Unless your volunteer agency has arranged a car service, you may wind up in a small bus or even the back of a pick-up truck, fitted with benches to be able to cram in 20+ people. Neither the buses nor the trucks were made for anyone over 5’3”. Once you get to your site, it may not be the paradise you had imagined. There are few places one can volunteer that will offer the same creature comforts of home. Expect to be outside of your comfort zone. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can adapt if you’re open to it. You may stay in a mud-hut (I grew to love mine), have outdoor plumbing, or no hot water. Keep reminding yourself why you chose to volunteer. Keeping your goals in mind and focusing on the positive will get you through the rough patches.
Reality #2: Unless you are volunteering in Siberia or parts of Eastern Europe, there are going to be bugs, big bugs in the large quantities. Tell both your volunteer agency and your home-stay family if you have any allergies to strings and bites. Ask your host family about any bugs you see. They may not be poisonous, but some bugs’ sting can pack a punch, even if you don’t have an allergy. Bring bug spray. Mosquitoes are annoying no matter what country you’re in, and some of them can carry Malaria or Dengue fever. Ask your volunteer agency if you will be in an area that has either of these illnesses. Travel clinics can prescribe anti-malarial drugs and Dengue can be combated through bug spray and long pants and shirts. Verify if your host family has a mosquito net you can use, as packing one is not a bad idea.
Reality #3: You may not get as much work done as you had imagined. Cultural differences, language barriers, differing levels of commitment and enthusiasm all affect a project’s progression. One must adapt 18 a “go with the flow” attitude. The people may not understand you, they want you alone to do the entire project, and they may not participate at meetings, show up late for meetings, or not come at all. Do not give up. With time comes trust and with trust comes the desire to help you in whatever project you have come to work on. You may not sway the masses but you can most definitely impact several lives by the work you do. No matter what the project or your length of stay, you will not be forgotten by the community. Even if you feel you have accomplished little in the way of work, time spent volunteering is never wasted.
Reality #4: Y our volunteer experience will change your life. Whether it is for one week, one month, or one year, your time spent volunteering abroad will greatly impact the way you see the world. Y ou will learn new things, not only about the culture you are immersed in but about yourself as well. Y ou will come back with pictures and stories to tell your friends and family, spreading understanding about foreign ways of life.
You may discover new passions, develop new career interests, or gain a desire to do even more to help others. No matter where you go, how long you stay, or what project you do, the last and most important reality is: your experience will have an unforgettable impact on your life. It is only natural to dream about what awaits you in the foreign country in which you have chosen to serve. Be prepared that the reality of your service may not always coincide with your visions. Go into your experience with an open mind. Y our bus may be small; you may not pick up the language quickly; you may want your work to progress faster. Whatever your challenges are, do not let them deter you from seeing the big picture. Your volunteer experience should not be measured in quantifiable successes, but rather by the impact you have had on others and the impact they have had on you.