There are many reasons that people decide to volunteer abroad, whether it is to experience a cultural exchange during a gap year, to explore a new career or simply a desire to change the world.
In this story, we hear from one of our World Volunteering Destination Managers, Pablo, who takes us through his personal journey and what drove him to volunteer for the first time in South America - a decision that has impacted his life ever since.
“When I was first asked by my World Volunteering colleagues what drove me to volunteer for the first time, I had some issues getting my thoughts together… Firstly, I found it difficult to remember and pinpoint exactly how it all started many years ago – 10, if I remember rightly - but secondly, because it is not that easy putting into words what volunteering meant, and continues to mean to me. For me, I think it is much easier explaining what kept me going all these years, so I will try and share that with you instead.
Being honest, the first time I joined a volunteer project it was mostly by chance; I overheard a friend of my brother’s talking about having visited one of the slums in the Greater Buenos Aires area of Argentina with an NGO, and it intrigued me. The non-profit organization, with the support of volunteers, helped different families living in extreme poverty by building emergency housing that improved their living conditions.
Aside from the curiosity I had in experiencing a different way of life and getting to know, first-hand, about the unequal conditions in which some people were living, this moment clearly woke my interest in helping others. Less than 24 hours later I signed myself up, met with the NGO and the following weekend found myself heading to a slum known as the ‘3 Americas’ with my fellow volunteers.
That first day of volunteering was a huge culture shock to me. I still have a clear, vivid image of me walking through the isolated mud streets of the neighbourhood into people’s houses, which were more like shacks. Many of the houses were constructed by just 4 pieces of metal or cardboard that were poorly made in a 4m by 2m space. I can still remember how overcrowded they were, that there was usually no floor and that the walls and roof continually leaked.
I spent that whole morning talking to the different families that I met. They spoke about life in the slum; the lack of assistance and acknowledgment from their government agencies; their efforts to improve their living standards, as well as the struggles and sacrifices they made on a daily basis just to afford a meal.
They were incredibly honest, open and kind to us. Despite the fact that they did not always have enough to eat, the families opened their houses and hearts to us, not hesitating in sharing tea, coffee or mate (traditional Argentian ‘tea’) with us.
They didn’t want hand-out’s and did not beg for anything, but instead wanted opportunities for them and their families.
Thus, we listened, we learned, we suffered with and for them. We listened to them without any agenda other than to get to know them, understand what they were going through and find out how to help and work with them to provide solutions to their needs. Ultimately, we wanted to make this world a more equal place for all.
From that moment on, I was hooked. I could never drag my thoughts away from that reality I had witnessed, those stories, those people… You can read statistics about poverty in Argentina and Latin-America (or any other place on the globe, for that matter) and see the terrifying numbers, but one should never lose focus and understand that each of those numbers represents a person.
Someone who struggles every day to get food for their kids, who wants to provide them with a better life than the one they had.
Someone who can’t even leave his house when it rains to go to work or take their sons to school because the “roads” get flooded.
Someone who has to walk miles to reach a hospital or clinic when there are none in the neighbourhood and ambulances can’t fit through the narrow halls.
I spent many years working with this NGO getting to know families and other volunteers, sharing stories, laughter, meals, triumphs and even some deceptions too. We shared many huge successes and learnt from each other, fighting for what was right and getting access to the services the community deserved, including basic electricity and water.
From the whole experience, I grew. I learnt. I experienced joy and sadness. I met people that changed me forever, both fellow volunteers and neighbours. I made friends for life, many of which I can still feel as my brothers and sisters despite the physical distance that separates me from some of them. I was even fortunate enough to meet my lovely wife there as well, with whom I shared absolutely enriching experiences with.
I witnessed people’s struggles, listened to their stories and shared mine. I met their kids and fell in love with their humility, kindness, joy and uplifting spirits. I spent some of the best moments of my life and have some of the happiest memories from these places and people I met while volunteering.
Reasons to Volunteer
After all of that, I still struggle to find one central motivation for volunteering, but what I have learned is that everyone gets involved for different reasons. It goes without saying that the journey someone takes when volunteering is hugely personal and different people are always going to have different motivations.
For myself, however, I will try to narrow it down to 3 reasons:
Reason 1: Desire to Help
- I volunteer because, for me, it is the right thing to do and I enjoy helping people. I simply can’t witness inequality and do nothing about it, regardless of how small my impact may be. Seeing others in need compels me to get as involved as possible and pushes me to try and generate positive change in communities.
Reason 2: Being Part of a Team
- I volunteer because I see the effort put in by local community members (even those who are struggling to make ends meet), as well as the passion of local and international volunteers. Putting it simply, I need to be a part of such an incredible, inspiring team of human beings.
Reason 3: The Experience of a Lifetime
- In part, I volunteer out of “selfishness”. I do it because it makes me feel good; because I learn and experience things and feelings I wouldn’t have if I didn’t; because I grow and break prejudices while doing so; mostly because it brings me closer to other people and myself!
So, if like Pablo you are eager to jump in to a new experience and are ready to take a hands-on role in helping others, check out our incredible volunteer programs in Latin America: