Hi! If I ask you about the alphabet, you will probably recite me the 26 letters in one go. You also probably know about the funny game where one person chooses a letter and the other participants have to fill in different categories with a word starting with the same letter. Don’t worry, I don’t want to remind you your first days at school! This is not what this article is about. But, if I tell you about the “ABC of something”, it is about the basics of this something. This something I want to tell you about is “Volunteering”. I don’t want to put an oxford dictionary-like definition but I want to tell you what volunteering is for me, using the 26 letters of the alphabet. Quite challenging, isn’t it? But also funny! So, let’s go now and put some comments.
As a volunteer, you have decided to give your contribution for a better world. You want to share your time and efforts with people who are in need. You want to learn more about the world in general by being active, or about yourself. Whatever your reasons to volunteer, you know that all your actions, even your intentions behind your actions, have an impact on the daily lives of other people, even your fellow co-workers. That is what makes you an activist.
Your actions are beneficial for the people or the communities you help, even if they seem small compared to the immensity of the world. They are also beneficial for you: do you feel happy or useful for helping other people?
You volunteer to help the victims of a meteorological catastrophe living thousands of miles from your home. There, you may not have full access to electricity or may not sleep on a comfortable bed or have proper food. You may have to work at night or be forced to see people living in horrible conditions. Facing such situation is quite challenging, more especially as there is no way to escape the reality.
More than a punctual help, you wish to contribute to long-term projects, located in developing countries. Helping to build a school in a rural African village doesn’t help only the children but also the whole community, as a school can be used as an adult education platform (youth club, HIV/AIDS clubs, adult literacy courses, family economy workshops, etc.). Such an action seems small in our latitudes but for a small village like in Africa, it can make a big difference.
If you are a student or have just finished school, you are probably tired of the lectures which don’t seem to come to an end. You are tired of the work-food-bed routine? You probably need to energize yourself by enrolling in a volunteering project. Meeting new people and discovering new places is likelier to refill your energy level because you will never get bored.
In our societies, you are not as free as the TV spots or advertisement bills want you to believe. You are hooked to your smartphone waiting for an answer on your Facebook Chat or you watch the mainstream sitcoms on a flat screen because you cannot expect better entertainment. If you don’t wear branded clothes or behave as expected according to your age, gender or socio-professional situation, you are considered as a “looser”. You want to be swag for your friends, your family and your colleagues but inside you, there is someone totally opposed to all of this. The real YOU with his own values, not the ones imposed by the society. As a volunteer, your real YOU is allowed to exist.
You can enroll with your friends or make new ones. Anyway, you will carry out your volunteering project with people who share the same goals as you. You can also gather people together to make a common front to solve the different issues in the world. Anyway, many things you cannot do by yourself or it would take many years. Together with other people, you can make many things and bigger things and thus, have a bigger impact on the life of the people you help. Moreover, if you are alone, you are likelier to give up in front of an obstacle.
As a volunteer, you are likelier to like what you do because you have chosen it. It is easier to be more involved in projects you have chosen to be part of. You know why you are here, you are surrounded by people who share common goals and are as passionate as you. Together, you create a positive energy and this helps even more people in need who, in return, show their happiness. As happiness is contagious, you are also happy. You are happy to be useful, happy to bring joy and comfort to poor people or, more simply, happy to meet other human beings.
The way we learn to solve problems in our society doesn’t involve creativity. Your computer doesn’t work anymore? Let’s buy a new one. You want the last coffee machine which makes the best Espresso? Let’s trash the old one and buy new. Moreover, corporations tend to sell machines that could do everything instead of us, pretending that it could make our lives easier or simpler. But is it so? If you volunteer in developing countries, you won’t have access to all these technologies. You will be amazed by the creativity that poor people use to fix their belongings or make things work. Soon, you will want to imitate them and make creativity as part of your lifestyle.
It is not because volunteers are surrounded by misery or imagine a gloomy future for the poor populations that they deprive themselves from having fun. As a volunteer, it is OK to make jokes because you need to take distance from the real world from time to time in order not to be emotionally overwhelmed. It is also OK that you make jokes with the people you help because you make them forget about their situations for a few minutes and they are likelier to collaborate to your development projects, as they don’t think only about their problems but also about the solutions to their problems.
If you prefer to learn in a practical way rather than staying at school and listening to a boring lecture, volunteering is for you. If you volunteer abroad, you have to adjust to a different language and a different culture. From this experience, you will learn a lot more, than learning in a book, because you live what you learn. You are in England and you read a book about the poor in India. While reading the book, your mind is in India (or what you think is India) but your body is in England. While closing the book, you are fully in England and forget about India. However, if you volunteer in India, you are fully there and find out many things related to poverty. You see things with your own eyes, things that will never be written in a book. This really makes you knowledgeable.
When you volunteer, you don’t meet only fellow workers or poor people. You also meet human beings. You start to question your own definition of what is to be a human being, what is life in general, as you may travel to places where the standard lifestyle of the people is completely opposite to the values taught in our society.
In the same way, you start to question yourself about the meaning of life, what could make your life meaningful. Many people choose to be volunteers in order to be “useful” to people in need. By helping others, they feel that their life has a meaning. Is it the same for you? It can be explained by the fact that in our society, we are so much privileged by having “everything” in one go that we have this feeling of “emptiness”.
As you meet populations of people that have less than you have and because you may be accommodated in places with the minimum material available, you may also start to question your own needs for having a good life. Do you really need a full load of clothes in your wardrobe? Do you really need to change your one-year-old iPhone with the last trendy one? Not having hot water every day or having to walk 10 kilometers far to get your daily water, makes you question your water consumption. You may have to wash your clothes by hand, because you don’t have a washing machine and you find out that buying one is useless because your accommodation doesn’t have full time access to electricity. When you face such challenging situations, you start to think about your consumption.
You face many uncommon situations or unexpected issues. You can take them as opportunities to learn something new and use what you have learnt to improve your lifestyle and make it meaningful. Effectively, as a volunteer who has the opportunity to travel abroad and discover different cultures, you at the same time have the opportunity to be open-minded and question the world – or the society – and its values.
If you watch the news, you encounter so much negativity that you don’t feel like meeting the people journalists are talking about. You don’t feel like going to Palestine or Afghanistan because cities are ruined and full of people willing to take revenge on each others. According to the news, these people are just numbers of dead, wounded, raped, terrorists and so on. What if you go and see by yourself? Volunteering is a positive experience because you gain a lot by meeting people and see by yourself the way people are.
Volunteers expect quality in everything they do. Quality means positive impact on the people involved, development in terms of economy and culture. Quality in terms of relationship between people.
You take full responsibility for your actions – or your inactions. As everything you do has an impact on the people you help as well as your colleagues, all decisions taken have to be thought deeply before. You are not only responsible that something happens, you are also responsible for involving people to take the decision with you.
During a project, it is so difficult to move things that you learn to appreciate the smallest victories, together with other people. Poverty is such a big issue that the smallest contribution counts and so do the smallest successes. It is also because as a volunteer, you find out that cooperation and team work brings more success than competition, unlike in our society.
You may travel to many places, meet new people and learn different culture. It is the preferred learning way of volunteers. However, don’t consider traveling like a tourist, or you won’t learn so much. You need to be confronted to how local people live to be able to understand them and help them better.
Confront yourself to how local people live and you will learn important life skills. You learn how to make food without “proper” material, how to fix things and not to spend resources compulsively. Right away, you may experience the direct consequences of your newly learnt life skills. In such situation, you are happy to manage by yourself, even if seen from far, it is so little.
As you learn how to manage by yourself and appreciate small successes, you may have the impression to revive. In Africa, you have to create Ethernet cables to help a college to have access to Internet and you are so happy to finally manage in connecting the colored lines to the plug output after many hours that you giggle. For the local teachers, it is just a formality. After a while, if you don’t learn anything new, it will be the same for you. However, to carry out your project, you will need some more challenges because without vitality, you find out that you can’t go so far.
During your volunteering period, you encounter so many things that you start to take wiser decisions. You have a better judgment on situations, especially when they are not scheduled and think better about the pros and cons of any decision. When you decide something, you are not doing it in an egotistical way or for egotistical reasons; you care about the others, even the ones who are not your colleagues, friends or your family. The whole population is part of your family, so… You are more pragmatic and don’t let emotions interfere too much in your decisions.
You are likelier to consider people the way they are. You don’t make confusions between individuals and nationalities, beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. For instance, you are able to dissociate Ahmed from being Muslim, being Muslim from being jihadist and being jihadist from being a terrorist. Ahmed is American. The thought “How can it be? His name doesn’t sound American!” is out of your conception or understanding. Ahmed is a human being. Dot.
You are the one needed for volunteering projects. You are the one who can make a difference. You are the one who can change the world… together with other people.
Once you are in your project, you want so much to help people in need that you are ready to displace mountains. You are a hard worker and don’t count the hours spent at work. This quality is needed to carry out quality projects. We are just waiting for you.