Volunteering Abroad, The Hard Truths

Without boring you with allllll the details, I’ll try and give a short synopsis of my time as a volunteer, this being the second time that I have tried it. The first was also based in a town called Mérida, but in Venezuela. Basically, if it’s not called Mérida then I’m not interested. I suppose that leaves Spain and the Philippines to try out.

Unfortunately, that first experience wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. And neither was this one. After 6 weeks, I think that I’m qualified to offer an informed opinion, and I can’t help but notice some negative characteristics pertaining to certain volunteering schemes that leave a slightly bitter taste.

But… I am in a bit of a quandary here. Volunteering is a Good, beneficial wholesome activity that can make a difference, hence why I do not want to cast a gloom over the whole thing. The last thing I want to do is put off any up-and-coming volunteers and deprive any hard-up communities that genuinely need them. But, I do want to make sure that all you future volunteers out there go in to the process with your eyes wide open.

So, I think this is a good time to serve up a delicious positive-negative-positive sandwich, for your delectation. My old corporate line manager would be so proud.

Here follows then a slice of perfectly risen warm ciabatta slathered with good news. During my 42 days living in the outskirts of Mérida, living off tacos, tortillas and strawberry wafers, 10 of them were spent working with kids. These were young boys who lived in a shelter for children who have been abused physically, sexually and mentally. We would head over there in the morning, play football and then keep them entertained until their first lesson at around 11am. And I could see even in that limited time that we made a difference. They obviously loved playing football and their faces lit up when they saw they got to play with ‘gringos’, especially from Europe where many of their athletic heroes herald from.

So, that’s all good then. We can all move on feeling good about ourselves.

Nope.

It’s unfortunately under threat from the somewhat bitter filling, behind the scenes.

Disorganisation and over-subscription have been a problem in both of my volunteer experiences. In this case, I signed up for 6 weeks of environmental work, but I ended up at the shelter, and doing other manual labour work, because my laboratory placement was full – despite me booking my place 4 months prior. In addition, some placements had three volunteers assigned to them, while others had none.

Some might argue that too many volunteers is never a bad thing. It is a pretty good problem to have, they say. Unfortunately, from my experience, I feel that this is not the case, and the resulting negativity can source from both the volunteers themselves and the beneficiaries too.

Starting with the volunteers, if they are placed to work in a field in which they have little or no interest, they are unlikely to be able to give their best. By optimising people’s skills, you optimise the experience of all concerned.

As for the beneficiaries, sometimes they can become complacent. It sounds like a terrible thing for me to accuse them of, from up here in my privileged ivory tower, but it can get to be an issue. For example, in Venezuela, a large group of us were sent to a community that obviously had volunteers on tap. I couldn’t help but feel that there were other communities out there desperate for help, who weren’t getting a look in.

With a bit more organisation, this could be avoided. It’s an odd situation when you have a group of people, all outside of their comfort zone, a thousand miles from home, and complacency sets in. It shouldn’t happen.

Having said that, this issue may just have been a symptom of the two organisations I was privy to. Many trustworthy sources have raved about their placements for example.

I also feel that paying for these schemes is a bit of a contentious issue. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Of course he’d say that after forking out 800 bucks for 6 weeks of work’, but there is sound reasoning behind this.

For many people, paying for something unavoidably (by the way we’ve been conditioned growing up) leads to a feeling of entitlement. So any little thing that is not up to scratch can be complained about – ‘I didn’t pay to be hungry all the time’ or ‘You’d think 150 dollars a week would pay for better beds’ – and this isn’t the attitude one should possess when volunteering for the greater good.

In some cases too, it also leads to the wrong people applying and sometimes a poor attitude to the work. If there was no money involved, then more people could apply and the organisers could select the best candidates, weeding out the gap yah kids who are just there to please their parents or party.

Right, enough of the sour and soggy sandwich filling. Where’s that other slice of fresh crusty bread covered in delicious mayo, slow-cooked pulled pork and all the trimmings?

Volunteering not only benefits the recipients, but is superb for the participant as well. You get to spend a prolonged period of time in a fascinating country of your choice, soaking in the culture, visiting the local wonders and learning the language. If that is not enough for your self-development then I don’t know what is – it’s indubitably more beneficial than sitting behind a computer in an office, finding more and more creative ways to waste time to get to the end of the day.

For me, the Day of the Dead festival and my time on the Mayan farm represented exactly this kind of opportunity (I urge you, if you haven’t already, to peruse my previous entries concerning all these fun and games).

Another highlight, given that I am a proud Geography geek, was the plethora of cenotes – a fascinating formation occurring in limestone karst landscapes – that are scattered around the Yucutan Province. Now I know all the geographers out there will be tempted into reading on in a few weeks’ time…

This is the 8th addition to Joe’s Mexico series.

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