I may not have arrived there on the back of a house, freefalling through a tornado. But I’ve never identified more with The Wizard of Oz than the moment I stepped off the plane at Lima, ahead of spending six weeks volunteering in South America. The phrase: ‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ stuck with me throughout my first day in the city. Although I wasn’t met with my own song-and-dance number (a fact I’m still bitter about), the sprawling, technicolour effervescence of the city was about as far removed from the grey England that I had left as it was possible to be.
That, of course, was entirely the point whether your yellow brick road takes you up the steep hills of Villa Maria or through the haunted streets of Kigali. If you’ve ever experienced the urge to fling yourself halfway across the world in the pursuit of something bigger than yourself- you’ll understand what I mean. There’s a kind of culture shock that comes from volunteering that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Being placed, centre stage in an entirely unfamiliar community was nerve-wracking, but volunteering gave me the chance to become part of a community, and a legacy, that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
At its heart, volunteering abroad is about having a positive impact on the community you spend your time with. The project I worked on involved running a programme of summer events for children in communities throughout Villa Maria, a shanty town in the Peruvian capital. While this might not sound as impressive as squashing the wicked witch with a house, in the absence of any freak weather events, I’m proud of the way the project managed to provide genuine and much-needed support within the local community without dictating what outsiders thought was best. Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult at times or that it wasn’t physically and occasionally emotionally demanding.
However, if you’re lucky, along the way you’ll meet your own Tin Men, Scarecrows and Cowardly Lions—people who share your values, travel a little way down the path with you, and help you to see the world differently, especially when the going gets tough. Working in some of the most deprived parts of the world takes a brain, a heart, and courage and from my experience is often undertaken by people who are searching for those very qualities within themselves, not realising it’s something they already have in spades. When I was skipping across my own yellow-tinted trail, they were the ones who helped me to realise that my head wasn’t only useful as rabbit food, my heart wasn’t entirely lost, and that I was much bigger than my biggest fear.
Of course, heading over the rainbow is one thing. Coming back is quite another. Dorothy might only have had to click her ruby slippers to get back to Kansas, but over a day’s travelling back to an England which was only a marginally lighter shade of grey than the last time I saw it had me wondering whether it had all been a dream. Confronting the realisation that there’s no easy way to slay the wicked witch—no conveniently placed bucket of water to sluice away all the terrible things in the world—is daunting. But, it’s also strangely freeing. I often used to find myself paralysed by this idea, held back by flying monkeys that scratched away at my attempts to make a positive difference, and screeched that whatever I was trying to do wasn’t important enough to matter. Spending six weeks being thrashed at football, used as an aquatic climbing frame, and sweltering in fancy dress might not sound like it can change very much… But I feel as though I’ve finally seen the man behind the curtain, and he isn’t as powerful as I’d been led to believe. One small volunteering project might not change the world, but it definitely changed mine.