May 18, 2014

From Mantra to Monkey Orphanage: Why Volunteering Is Not A Sacrifice. ~ Rachel Leshaw


A popular line of the Mangala mantra is “Lokaha samastaha sukino bvantu.”

This means “May all the world’s beings be free and happy.”

For a recent vacation I volunteered at a baboon rehabilitation center in South Africa. Baboons are not endangered, nor are they the cutest of primates. But that doesn’t make them less deserving of life and freedom.

Baboons babies are brought to the center when their moms are shot, poisoned or hit by cars. Baboons of varying ages have been brought in as refugees from medical testing facilities. In perspective, working long hours and living with 18 strangers sharing two bathrooms is no big deal.

Everyone told me, “It’s so good of you to volunteer.” But it didn’t feel like I was sacrificing vacation days. It was fun and fulfilling. Volunteering is not martyrdom or heroism*; we can all do something to realize our goals for the world.

Somewhere is a volunteer opportunity perfect for you. Here are some guidelines to help you find it:

Recognize what makes you happy

Animals make me happy. My highest calling is to make them feel safe, healthy and loved. What sustains you?

Don’t try to please or impress anyone with your answer. My husband prefers to relax on vacation with luxury and privacy. When I went to Africa, he stayed home. I didn’t have to listen to his complaints and he doesn’t feel resentful that I wasted his time. When you find a project that makes you happy, committing your time and energy comes easily.

My volunteering was not a selfless act; I chose a rehabilitation center that would reward me with hands-on opportunities. That meant hugging, playing and constantly transmitting love to the monkeys. I knew they trusted me when they would fall asleep in my lap or jump off the high rafters into my arms. There are countless ways to be rewarded as a volunteer.

Envision your ideal future of the world

I envision wild animals unhampered by human encroachment. But I’ll settle for each thoughtless act being countered by a helpful act.

Baboon babies can’t survive without their moms to feed and teach them. At the Center, each baby gets a surrogate human mom for a few months, 24 hours a day.

Within a year the baby is weaned off human contact and integrated into a baboon family comprised of orphans of various ages. Volunteers don’t so much as make eye contact with baboons past childhood. We need them to fear humans upon release and avoid human contact.

When the whole troop is mature (at least age eight), they are ready for release into the wild. As a family, they return to freedom. Ideally animal babies wouldn’t be orphaned in the first place, but this sanctuary is a success story.

When a playful baby pulls my hair or a sleeping baby pees in my lap, I’m not being selfless or heroic. I’m merely helping the organization propel a vision into reality. They have an agenda and I get satisfaction at seeing that agenda realized.

How can you help manifest your vision?

Every nonprofit group needs a diverse set of volunteers. We aren’t all capable of engineering specs to bring drinking water to a village. Maybe that bores you and you’re better at graphic design or party planning. Maybe you care about prisoners or third world debt or curing pediatric diabetes. What are your skills and preferences?

One nonprofit in South Africa is helping to minimize the number of baboon orphans by working with farmers. Each farmer receives a German Shepherd dog trained to chase off nuisance baboons before any property damage occurs. The farmer won’t be compelled to respond with violence and the baboons will survive. This project would suit volunteers that like working with people, culture and economics. There is a project for everyone.

It’s expensive to fly across an ocean**. When we finally save enough money, we don’t have time because we’re always working. While this cycle is frustrating, it’s not a valid excuse to be idle. We are needed close to home and in all scheduling scenarios. We should be practical and mindful of our lifestyles.

Our daily yoga practice is evidence of our commitment to peace. We can do more than chant “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.” Offering ourselves as volunteers is the best way to propel our agendas into the world.

*Exceptions exist. For example, the long-term staff at the baboon sanctuary are not paid. This includes the director who has worked there 11 years.

**And it makes a big carbon footprint.

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Apprentice Editor: Hannah Harris / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Author’s Own

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Rachel Leshaw