May 28, 2014

The Art of Volunteering & Making a Difference.

Children in the slums India

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

~ Mother Teresa

Five years ago, I was finally at the point in my life in which I was able to set a new goal for myself. I made the decision that I would spend one week a year abroad as a global volunteer, giving back to a host community. 

After years of traveling around the world, I realized how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to see places that most people will never see. Furthermore, I understood how much we truly have in the western world compared to to everyone else who are not so fortunate.

Spending time in developing countries opened my eyes even more and I became more thankful for the fact that I had a more than adequate roof over my head, plenty of food on the table, a loving family and the ability to stay at home with my children and pursue my dreams.

All in all, I realized that I had a really great life and that millions of people around the world were just struggling to survive.

It is a rather humbling albeit guilty feeling to see how so many people live in such poverty.

It is also something that is quite difficult to explain to people who have never truly traveled outside of the box. The more I visit developing countries, the more I feel the need to give back and help out.

It shouldn’t be a matter of where you are born whether you live or die, eat or starve, and live a fulfilling life or suffer. Opening my eyes and my mind to how the world really is and getting outside of the “bubble” of unreality that is middle-class American life made me realize that I had to do something.

I had to give back, even if it was small. I couldn’t live this great life without helping others. I couldn’t travel to these countries without doing anything. Hence, I became a global volunteer.

The very first volunteer trip I took was with a US-based organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). In April of 2009 I went to Cartago, Costa Rica for a week-long volunteer program called Insight abroad. Although I went solo, I was met at the airport by a CCS van and driven to the home base where me and ten other volunteers would be staying for a week.

As a newbie to solo traveling and international volunteering, I wanted to feel safe and have everything organized for me. It ended up being a wonderful experience and I truly felt like I was able to make a difference in only a week’s time. With that first volunteer trip, I was hooked.

Costa Rica nursing home

The following year I decided to go on another volunteer trip with CCS again but this time to Morocco where I could use my French language skills. While I was in Costa Rica, the language barrier was a little tough, however some of the workers at the nursing home where we volunteered spoke English and I was able to use my rustic Spanish enough to get by.

This time, however, I wanted to put my years of French language to use and also visit a new country and culture.

Morocco was once again a wonderful experience, however I was beginning to feel like I didn’t need so much hand-holding on my trips. Instead of going as a group and paying the high administrative costs of the program (which are necessary in order to pay for the local staff, lodging, food, and programming), I felt like I wanted to try something on my own.

As an experienced traveler, I felt confident that I could do it alone. I just needed to find the right program.

Almost like a sign of fate, my son’s first grade teacher mentioned that her husband was Guatemalan and that together they ran a Spanish school in Xela, Guatemala for people to learn Spanish and volunteer with the local community. Instantly I was interested. It sounded like the perfect opportunity and it ended up being fabulous.

Based on my experience in Guatemala and how much I’d begun to fall in love with the culture and beauty of Central America, I set my heart on doing my next volunteer trip in Honduras.

However, finding a program for only a week proved to be a challenge. I wanted to do something on my own again but needed some kind of organization to help me get there since I would be traveling solo and knew that Honduras could be a little dangerous for a solo woman traveler.

I had heard horror stories while in Guatemala and realized that I had to be more careful with these trips.

Guatemala children

I went to volunteer in La Ceiba, Honduras for a week in January 2013. Once again, I went solo, yet this time the trip proved to be much more challenging and eye-opening than my past experiences.

La Ceiba was not very safe, so most of the time when I wasn’t volunteering or taking Spanish classes, I stayed with my host family at their house. It was not a town that I could walk alone in, even during the day, as I was one of the only foreigners around and sadly Honduras has been significantly impacted by drugs, gangs and violence. 

The volunteer work at a local daycare center for children of single parents was absolutely heartbreaking.

The center was run by a staff that didn’t care and used corporal punishment and yelling as their discipline strategy. The only love and attention that the children received was by the one or two volunteers. I was so disturbed by the experience that I wrote a letter to the organization who ran the volunteer program in the States, and sadly Americans aren’t volunteering there anymore.

I learned an important lesson though.

As much as I wanted to make things right and fix what was wrong, I could not. I was merely a visitor passing by and nothing I did would change things for those neglected children.

My only hope is that my small amount of time there brought at least a few smiles on the children’s faces. This experience opened my eyes to the reality and the tragedy of the world, and made me even more determined to give back.

Girls in La Ceiba Honduras Day Care

My last volunteer trip occurred last May. I was selected to travel to Delhi, India as a social good blogger with Mom Bloggers for Social Good.

Our trip was extraordinary.

We met with various NGOs who work in the poorest slums of India and learned about poverty, education, maternal and newborn health, and access to water and sanitation. Being in a country in which 1.6 million children die before their fifth birthday (29 percent of the global total) was heartbreaking. Yet seeing the progress being made on the ground was enlightening and filled with me hope.

Delhi slum

In less than three weeks, I am heading to Ethiopia for two weeks as an International Fellow with the International Reporting Project.

During my two weeks in Ethiopia, I will visit remote villages and report on maternal and newborn health.

Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has made remarkable progress towards saving the lives of its children. However, much work needs to be done. I look forward to my next global adventure and using my voice to share the stories of the people I meet along the way, hoping I touch people’s hearts and minds to the struggles of so many people in this world.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Author’s Own

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