Things I’ve learned by volunteering

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  When you are surrounded by relatively wealthy people, it’s easy to feel bad for yourself and your outdated iPhone.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.

Walking to school one morning in Villa El Salvador, Peru

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.


  1. Also about point number 1: What’s difficult for you might come so easily to others.
    In my own volunteering experiences i’m always humbled by the sheer grit of people that i’m supposed to serve.A tiny girl piggyback her little brother to school, kids walking for more than 2 hours to get home, and a boy hitting his head hard against the floor but gets up, smiles and goes on playing.
    The more i volunteer, the more i realize i have so, so much to learn!

    • You’re absolutely right, wanderful. I actually planned to include this complementary concept in the post but forgot. I found that the children I worked with were so full of love, compassion, and patience, I had a ton to learn from them. They also kicked my butt at frisbee!

  2. A. Lovett

    Meghan this is so inspiring. Everything I feel is missing from my “corporate life” you’ve explained how to achieve. Thanks so much for this 🙂

  3. Anna sent me here, and I love everything about this blog. This post is amazing and so touching. I love volunteering abroad too, and you have inspired me even more to do so when I can! Those kids are just too darn cute! Enjoy your adventures.

  4. Awesome, wonderful post Meghan! I love it! I especially love number 3. I think more Americans need to get out there and truly see the world. We have so much. Yet so many people are unhappy, miserable, pitiful and ungrateful for what they have. They just want more. By getting outside of the box and volunteering either internationally or even within your community with people in need, it shows the true value of being human and makes you feel so blessed to be able to help others. I have also decided this is the direction I am going to head in my life. One of giving back and never forgetting to do it. It is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. My only regret is that I didn’t make it sooner but then again, circumstances were in the way. Now the world is my/our oyster, right! 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more, Nicole. Being from the United States is one of the greatest blessings in the world, in terms of resources and opportunities, but living exclusively in that bubble of privilege can be really harmful. The importance of experiencing a new way of life can not be overstated. It has transformed me completely.

  5. Pingback: My Time.. | rfljenksy – Practicing Simplicity

  6. Its so great to see someone else verbalise how brilliant volunteering is! I’ve been lucky enough to teach english and worked on a community projects and its aways so rewarding and it allows you to get to know a country so much better than just backpacking. Wish I could leave London again right now – sadly have to find my personal fulfillment in the city for a while (hence the blog!) I shall continue to travel vicariously through your blog. Thanks! xx

  7. electricbohemian

    There are plenty of experiences you can do without paying, check out work away – you work for food and board thus saving money.. they have placements all other the world and they are proper local people so you get a great feel for the culture, I have done a couple already and each has been a valuable experience.

    • Thanks a lot for the recommendation, electricbohemian. I’m planning to start working full-time again fairly soon, but I’m sure some time in the future I’ll want to volunteer abroad again. I will keep this in mind.

  8. trentiebee

    I wouldn’t feel self-conscious about paying money to volunteer. It’s difficult to tell if money will turn into loving feelings for those kids which (in my opinion) is really what children need more than anything else. Being there yourself is the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate assurance that you will make a positive difference. The world is too complex these days to ensure that money will help anything, but love and positive interaction is timeless benefit to anyone’s lives.

    • Thanks trentiebee, I agree that love is vital, especially for children. And yes, some things are too complex to monetize (love being one of them, despite what some of my economics professors might argue)!

    • Thanks bucketdave. And I’m unfortunately guilty of breaking my own “rules”… There were definitely times I lost my patience and yelled, and then felt terrible about it later. But I suppose the most effective way to learn is from our own mistakes. Thanks for reading!

  9. Roxanne

    I am so proud to know you, twin. I think back to Porto Carras and to your kitchen table in NJ and to all the moments in between and I can feel a shell cracking open. It is a metaphor I’m living in right now. All I have is gratitude for you, and pride and humility to be part of your journey.

    • I think back to those moments too, twin, whenever I feel overwhelmed or worry that my dreams and goals are just too lofty. I already accomplished so many things I wanted to do but doubted I could achieve, and that alone is enough to motivate me to keep trying.

      And it’s no small coincidence that the most pivotal conversations and moments of awakening in this journey have been shared with you, either on a beach chair or on g-chat. You’re the best soultwin I could ask for. 🙂

  10. Sid Dunnebacke

    I’m glad you didn’t take to heart what your cynical colleagues said about the efficacy of what you set out to do. Without a doubt charitable organizations have their place and have value (or rather, are absolutely necessary!) but so does what you’ve done. I don’t think anything can top one-to-one attention, a la Mother Teresa. All the best to you in whatever’s coming next, Meghan.

  11. Pingback: Love Takes Action – Volunteer « Fiannaiochta

    • Thanks so much Alison. I’m still in Colombia, working on my next steps (and enjoying life on the Caribbean!). I’m hoping to stay abroad for a while longer and enter the field of microfinance. Keep your fingers cross for me!

  12. This is an inspiring post and one that puts daily life in westernised countries in perspective. Sometimes when I hear people complaining that they don’t “have a life” because their mortgage is so expensive or something similar, I think “Be grateful. You are lucky.”

    • Very true, Denise. It’s hard for us to break out of that mental model that assumes that everyone has a great paying job, a nice house, a perfect family, the latest electronics. I think we tend to set absurdly high standards for success in the west and then feel some wretched combination of self-pity and self-loathing when we inevitably fall short. It’s good to get away for a while and reset your expectations and priorities to a more human standard.

  13. What I always find fascinating about volunteering, is that I always feel like I get more out of it than I give ~ it’s a wonderful feeling. What you’ve done is wonderful.

    • Absolutely, Susan! I’ve said that so many times this year, that I’ve gotten more than I’ve given. But I think it’s mostly based on the fact that people generally react to love and kindness reciprocally. Thank you for your kind words.

  14. What an eye-opening post — and experience. It sounds as though you are learning and so much and, crucially, asking some good questions. Very happy to follow your journey.

  15. Thought-provoking and inspiring, as I’ve come to expect from your posts! The comment about positive change not always being measurable hits home, and is at the root of a lot of disenchantment and burn-out, I’m sure. And your comment about most people being good rings true from my experience. But my next reaction to that was: ‘Why are so many of the bad ones in charge of others’ lives and destinies? It seems to me that so many sociopaths rise to high positions in politics, business and even academics. Is it because they really don’t care what effect their behavior has on the lives of others? Do they just want to get “theirs”? Is it because they are willing to be ruthless in that pursuit? Do they justify selfishness as a virtue?

    • Thank you Joanne! And I’ve thought a lot about the very questions you posed. I think the problem is two-fold: first, the selection process to achieve a position of leadership favors people with certain traits. Among them is the ability to self-promote, to charm. I think the subset of people who are natural-born leaders and politicians tend to possess different character traits from those who are more inclined to serve others quietly (I tend to be drawn more toward people in the latter group). Plus, the actual campaigning/election process tends to sift out the “weaklings” who don’t have the grit and guts to persevere, to sacrifice their privacy and often their relationships with their families to get to the top. It’s a hard road, and you really have to want it to get it.

      Secondly, I think once people do make it to “the top”, there is immense pressure to bend to temptation, to be corrupted, a la “All the King’s Men.”

      But I have to believe that there is a way to acknowledge the quietly good people, the ones who might not naturally be charming leaders, but who have so much to teach. Anyway, thanks for the very thought-provoking questions!

      • Not at all!

        That video is fragments from one of the classic Russian films starring with outstanding Soviet actors, like Oleg Dal, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Yuri Nazarov, Georgi Vitsin, Igor Starygin, Makhmud Esambayev (chechen actor and one of the most famous dancers of the Soviet Union) and many others.

        By the way, I found English translation of the song here

        There is only a moment

        Everything in this storming world is a mirage.
        There is only this moment – hold on to it.
        There is only a moment between a past and a present
        And it is called life.

        Everlasting peace would not please your heart.
        The everlasting peace is for gray pyramids,
        But for a shooting star that is falling
        There is only a moment, this blinding moment.

        Let this world run through centuries,
        But its ways are not always my ways.
        What I value, what I risk in this world –
        It is this moment – only this moment.

        You are going to meet happiness or sorrow
        But there is only this moment – hold on to it.
        There is only a moment between a past and a present,
        And it is called life.

  16. Dave Griffiths

    Well written, Meghan…I enjoyed reading your perspectives on life and I’m glad your travel and volunteer experiences helped you to recognize them. I hope that every day you continue to see something you haven’t seen before and learn something new from it.

  17. I absolutely love this post. You are spot on about everything.

    It is easy to feel bad for yourself and sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and realize how good a lot of us have it. Reading your blog has been great to see how people in other countries are living.

    On a less serious note, that face the little boy is making is adorable! I just want to pinch his cheeks! (oh gosh, I sound like Mema!)

    • Thanks a lot Jill! And yes, I still struggle with “woe is me” syndrome far too often. I have to consciously work on that and patience every day.

      And yes! That little boy was the light of my life in Peru. He was so smart, so funny, but definitely mischievous!

  18. TheBlackTwig

    That’s a wonderful set of learnings. I like what you said that there is value in love. Similar to volunteering, it is too great of a value that it is unfair to quantify it. I hope there will be more people like you. This really inspired me. Thanks!

      • I can totally understand I have trouble finding patience with adults more than anything, and with myself. You know children you can forgive for the things they say/do because you can rationalize it as they don’t know any better, they’re still becoming who they will be. Adults I have zero tolerance for because a lot of the times I feel like they should know better, and I know a lot of children who DO know better so no excuses 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: