This week marks my one-year anniversary of leaving the corporate world. Since then, I’ve traveled a lot, learned a new language, and spent a good deal of time volunteering. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned as a volunteer.
1. What’s easy for you may be difficult or impossible for others. And vice versa. One of my placements in Yaroslavl, Russia was at a school for mentally disabled children. Some of them could not complete the craft projects on their own. Instead of cutting along the dotted lines, they cut indiscriminately, slicing up their masks and puppets unknowingly. Others knew what the lines were for, but lacked the motor skills to follow them. Watching the children struggle with seemingly simple tasks (and then express so much joy over the final products) made me think about my own abilities and limitations. It made me think about how many times I selfishly lamented my lack of musical talent, or how if only I were a few inches taller I could have been better at soccer. Volunteering with people with disabilities put that all in perspective. I can walk, talk, and cut out paper shapes without assistance. That’s enough to be grateful for.
2. Patience is more than a virtue, it’s a muscle that needs to be worked out every day, with focus and intention. Working with children does for your patience what Tae Bo does for you glutes.
3. I’ve had it good my whole life. Really good. A fantastic and quirky family, generally perfect health, plenty of food to eat, a warm home to shelter me, books overflowing from library shelves, and presents under the Christmas tree every year. When you are surrounded by relatively wealthy people, it’s easy to feel bad for yourself and your outdated iPhone. Spend time around people who live simply and still struggle to get by, and all that self-pity flies out the window.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This was priority #1 in Peru with the 31 four year-olds I taught. Don’t stress about the cold soup turning into a crust on your shirt after lunch time. Don’t stress about the kids spilling glitter on the floor. Don’t stress about the dollhouse being left in disarray. Messes can be cleaned up; mean words can’t be unsaid. There were many days I went home covered in some mixture of bodily fluids and mashed potatoes, exhausted and smelly. But now looking back I don’t think about the messes nearly as much as I miss the students and the teachers and wonder if I’ll ever see them again.
5. Positive change is not always measurable. The backbone of my education in economics and my work in finance was measurement. Measuring efficiency, measuring gains, measuring growth. Everything is quantifiable and should be quantified in order to determine if it is worth doing. Several cynical (and surprisingly young) people in my last job expressed concern about my decision to pay money to do volunteer work. To paraphrase: “Wouldn’t that money be better spent as a donation to a more effective organization? It sounds like one of those things people pay for so they can feel like a better person and put ‘international volunteer work’ on their resumes.”
Perhaps there is some truth in that. I can’t say I bought X number of mosquito nets or malaria vaccines. I didn’t dig any wells or start any schools. And yes, I plan on putting my volunteer work on my resume. But does that imply misuse of funds?
There is value in good will. There is value in community. And there is value in love. I fell in love a hundred times this year, with ideas and cities and adorable kids. I poured my heart into simple tasks. I gave lots of hugs and kisses and inspired thousands of smiles. I left each of these places with a greater sense of commitment to my ideals and, bit by bit, a greater focus on what I want to do with my life. And hopefully I helped other people realize they are worthy of receiving love, even from random gringo strangers.
I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t seek efficiency in charitable initiatives. But sometimes it makes sense to start by doing something very basic and hands-on, perhaps simply interacting with people, and then seek direction and efficacy from there.
6. Most people are good. Many people are spectacularly good. There isn’t much more I can say about this that a thousand other travel bloggers have already said. Traveling has taught me that although danger exists, the vast majority of people are kind and willing to help. And volunteering has taught me that there are a lot more saints out there than the Catholic church admits. I’ve met people who work tirelessly to help other people every day for paltry pay and no accolades. There is a wealth of goodness out there. Seek it out, learn from it, and then replicate it.
7. I do, in fact, like kids. Despite all the weird crap they do.
For those interested in doing something similar, check out Cross Cultural Solutions, the organization with which I volunteered this year in Peru and Russia. I can’t recommend them enough.