Volunteering abroad: sometimes you receive more than you give

by Kim on September 23, 2012 · 35 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.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy September 23, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I’m so glad you two had a fun volunteer experience! I know I felt almost guilty when I was volunteering because I felt like I was getting more out of the experience than the kids, i think a lot of people feel like that. It’s always interesting to hear the POV of different volunteers because everyone does it for a different reason. Sounds like the kids love you all, and that everyone had a great time. On to the next adventure!!!

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:39 am

Tracy, we met someone here in Banos the other day who looks just like you! I think you would love it here… you should come volunteer :)

On to the next adventure!

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Jessica September 23, 2012 at 2:18 pm

This is beautiful. That envelope project is awesome, too. I can’t imagine how changed your lives are already, and there’s so much more to come. Keep up the great work!

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:40 am

Thanks Jessica! You know, I feel the same but know I am changing… I can see more change in Brian than in myself, probably because it’s hardest to see in yourself. Such an adventure!

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Michele September 23, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Great post Kim! If we are all honest with ourselves – volunteering is often about what you get instead of what you give…and that can be a beautiful thing! In the end – it is those experiences that help us grow.

Glenn and I are excited about the brick – we’re going to need to make plans to visit this magical land of Banos to visit the brick and smell the flowers!

(We’ll go ahead and skip the bridge diving though)

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:41 am

Yay, I’m glad you like the brick! I’ve read all the bricks and you two are the only representatives from Oregon (there are bricks from all over the world!). Good idea on skipping the bridge jump. I skipped it too :)

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Rhonda September 23, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I love this because I, too, have wondered when we are driving the PanAm and volunteering if we would feel like we were making a difference. I think many times just being willing to be there volunteering is all that you need to do!

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:42 am

Yeah, a warm body counts for a lot! Also, you can never really know if you’re making an impact or not. I guess all we can do is show up and do our best.

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Tash September 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Well done on such a brave and honest post. I guess different things work and don’t work for different people.

The language barrier is definitely a hard one when it comes to volunteering, and certainly makes you wonder who is getting what out of such an experience.

But you are right, it’s the little things, and little connections, that matter.

This line makes me the saddest – ‘…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…’ – I hope the next few months of your travels helps you get that sense of wonder about the world back!

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:43 am

I do have wonder about the world… but it’s so rarely the little things that make me stop. I loved that I was reminded of the joy of little things through Gabriel’s sweet little gesture. Little things used to fill me with wonder as a child… I do want that back.

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Sarah Somewhere September 24, 2012 at 5:40 am

This was such a beautifully written post, Kim. It made me laugh because kids just dont have that barrier between what they say and what others are expecting, which leads to surprising results! The girl who sung and the boy who said ‘yep’, they are my favourites!! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us :)

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:44 am

I love that he said “yep” and then didn’t speak until nudged again. So funny! Kids really are hilarious and their personalities just shine through.

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Carmel September 24, 2012 at 7:10 am

You may never know the impact you have on someone’s life. It’s just important that you keep trying. I can imagine it would be frustrating to not understand them, but sometimes having an adult even try to pay attention is enough.

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Yes, I do absolutely agree with you that you never know the kind of impact you are having. Now that we have moved on from our volunteering gig in Banos I’m already starting to look for opportunities in India… I guess it really did have an impact on me!

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Arianwen September 24, 2012 at 2:14 pm

This is a really weird coincidence…one of my travel blogger friends from back home in London sent me the link to your Rickshaw Run (which looks awesome by the way!) so I checked out your blog too. I just arrived in Banos an hour ago!!! Do you fancy meeting up? I’d love to hear more about it!

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Hello! I just responded to your email. Hopefully we can meet up!

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Peter September 24, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Appreciate the honesty. I think there is often a lot of rose colours glasses around volunteering and it’s nice to have such an honest voice. Would you do this again? Or a different type of volunteering in a different country perhaps?

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Kim September 24, 2012 at 7:00 pm

You know what, I would totally do it again. We left today and it was really sad! In retrospect I am seeing how much I gained from the experience… hopefully the kids gained a lot too. I DO want to volunteer again- we’re already searching for good opportunities in India.

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Tracey September 24, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Great post Kim. Thank you so much for sharing your feelings on volunteering. My family and I want to do some volunteering when we travel around Ecuador and my expectations and hopes for making a difference sound like how you felt. I also agree you may not know the impact you had on those amazing kids. From all the smiles in the photos I would bet they grew a bit to. Imagining different places in the world and maybe being inspired someday to travel and volunteer to make a difference somewhere else in the world themselves.

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Kim September 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Hi Tracey- I love thinking that perhaps they might be inspired to travel and volunteer one day… they were such amazing kids. I think that you and your family will get so much out of volunteering- and I can recommend a great place to volunteer in Banos :)

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TammyOnTheMove September 26, 2012 at 11:55 pm

What a lovely post. You might think that you didn’t make a difference in the kid’s lives, but I am sure they appreciated you spending time with them. I think if you want to do a voluntary placement where you can make a difference you should consider capacity building type placements for a longer period of time. This is what I am doing and I came to a Cambodian NGO to train them in fundraising and communications. I am about to finish my one year placement and I loved every minute of it (luckily I don’t need to speak Khmer as all staff speak English).

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Kim September 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Tammy, I am seriously considering a longer placement- possibly in India when we are there in January (and can stay for six months). How did you get in touch with your placement in Cambodia? Is there a website you recommend?

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TammyOnTheMove October 12, 2012 at 5:57 am

We got our placement through an organisation called 2wayDevelopment. You have to pay them a fee, but in return they will provide you with a tailor-made job offer for three countries. You can get placements based on your experience or if you want to gain new skills they will find you a job as well. Highly recommend them. But now I have done the posting, I know I could have easily arranged a placement myself. NGOs are desperate for qualified volunteers, so just pick a smallish one and email them and see what they say.. I don’t know any organisations in India, but can put you in touch with one in Cambodia if you are interested.

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Kim October 15, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Thanks Tammy. When/if we get to Cambodia and need to find volunteering I will get in touch. Thank you for all of the great info!

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Dalene September 28, 2012 at 9:01 pm

You made a difference – you truly did – as you are a part of the movement. Without the volunteers, La Bib wouldn’t exist. And if La Bib didn’t exist, kids wouldn’t have books in their hands or exposure to international people that will make them more well-rounded human beings. Perhaps they won’t remember your face exactly, but they will look back on their time at La Bib and KNOW that they were privileged to be a part of it.

That said, I totally agree with you – I almost felt guilty as it felt like a one-sided experience to benefit ME! But I’m okay with that too. :)

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Kim September 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Yeah, I know you are right Dalene. Part of the cog that keeps the wheel moving forward- and I was proud to be a part of it.

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Gina January 15, 2013 at 7:36 am

Im visiting Ecuador in may, with my three children. I am interested in visiting a lot of places but I am in a budget . I would like my kids to experience volunteering . Where did u volunteer and what did u recommend to visit and do. My budget is 2000$ and I will be visiting from may to July

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Kim January 16, 2013 at 9:12 am

Hi Gina. I volunteered at this place and I highly recommend it: http://www.artedelmundoecuador.com. Ecuador is a good place to travel on a budget so I think you will have a great time. I really recommend visiting Banos, Mindo, and Cuenca. Have fun!

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