Volunteering abroad: sometimes you receive more than you give

by Kim on September 23, 2012 · 36 comments

The other night, after a long day at our volunteering gig, a fellow volunteer, who knows I have this blog, asked what I would be writing about my experience volunteering abroad at Arte del Mundo. I told him I’d write the truth: that I’ve had a great time settling into Baños, that I’ve loved meeting and spending time with the other volunteers, but that the actual act of volunteering has been somewhat hard for me.

The experience is hard because I don’t speak the language. I want to be able to communicate with the kids, to ask them questions and convey complex thoughts, but I just can’t. I know I’d have something to offer, but I’m not able to do anything more than grunt and say si in response to whatever the kids might be saying to me.

Likewise, from an absolutely selfish point of view, I’d sort of hoped that I’d feel like I was making a difference. But the truth is that these kids are smart and enthusiastic and well-educated. They don’t really need me at all. I sometimes just feel like like a human jungle-gym and germ-catcher, reading children’s books that I can’t understand aloud in horribly mispronounced Spanish.

So I told Leon, the volunteer who’d asked me the question, that that’s what I would write, but that I’d also tell the story of one moment that sticks out to me, when a particularly lovable and goofy little guy, Gabriel, who is the kind of kid who sings to himself and puts his shoes on the wrong feet, was walking to the park with us the other day.

The volunteers had organized the Baños 2012 Olympic Games and were marching the kids to a nearby field to compete in officially sanctioned Olympic events like the egg and spoon relay and tug-of-war. Gabriel, who was walking in front of me, stopped to pull a little red flower out from behind a chain link fence. I watched as he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply for a split-second before he was ushered forward by the momentum of the group. Gabriel’s little gesture was so innocent and authentic that it reminded me of how, at some point in our lives, we were all so capable of being filled with wonder.

But Gabriel’s stop-and-smell-the-roses moment was really the only thing that had touched me in the weeks we’d been volunteering. “I guess I was just expecting a little more,” I told Leon.

Then today we had the kids make a time capsule. We instructed them to write a letter to their future selves, and to draw a picture of themselves now and one of how they imagine the future will look. “I hope there’ll be trees,” said one little boy, his dark eyes blinking from behind his coke-bottle glasses.

In addition to the pictures and letters we interviewed the kids individually. We put the interviews on a disk to be included in the time capsule.

During the interviews the kids were asked to state their name, their age, what they hoped to be when they grow up, and to relay a message to the future if they had one.

The interviews were just as adorable as you would imagine. One little girl sang the entire 3+ minutes of her favorite song. One kid, when asked if he had a message for the future said “yep” and then sat there in silence until the interviewer asked “well… what is it?”

But what really stood out were the sweet and touching messages that the kids had for the future. “I hope you are happy and healthy,” said one little boy. “I hope that life in the future is even better for you than the life we have now,” said another.

The most poignant message of the day came from Karlita, a wiry and quick little girl with big, expressive eyes and a missing-tooth smile. When asked what her message to the future was she grinned and stated, simply, “I love you.”

At the end of the day we shoved everything into our makeshift time capsule and buried it in the yard. The children acted sentimental about leaving it behind and yelled “ciao” as the final load of dirt was dropped on top.

It was one of those days that leaves you feeling really hopeful about things to come. Here I’d been complaining that I wasn’t getting much from my experience and then along came the kind of day that flipped everything on its head.

In less than a week Brian and I will leave Banos and this volunteering position behind. The kids will carry on with the same great experiences that they had before we arrived. Nothing changes for them. I was, for just a moment, a small part of something bigger. 

So, I didn’t change these kids, but, it turns out, they may have changed me. Their energy and enthusiasm, their excitement about every. little. thing, it’s catching. Brian and I will move on, but I think a tiny part of my heart will stay here, in Baños, with the children of La Bib.

Volunteers and kids at La Bib holding the time capsule

Volunteering abroad might sound a bit complicated especially if it means being in a foreign country, but it’s not that complicated. For example, if people based in Europe would like to take a trip to he US for some volunteer work, it’s quite easy to take an application for an esta online.

Arte del Mundo recently built a community theater for the people of Banos to enjoy. Brian and I have purchased a brick in honor of Glenn and Michele and The Yellow Envelope Project (learn more about The Yellow Envelope Project here). The donation will help Arte del Mundo continue to provide art and literacy programs for the children of Baños.