What Can YOU Get Out of Volunteering?
by Barbara Elwood Schlatter
Do these words sound familiar? For more than thirty years, Kennedy's words have motivated Americans to serve overseas as Peace Corps volunteers to combat poverty, hunger, and disease. This month's "Volunteerism" theme provides a forum to discuss an often overlooked aspect of volunteerism; that is, what can you get out of volunteering?
I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer before I knew what "it will look good on your resume" meant. I remember attending a school assembly in fourth grade to hear a woman speak about her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer. One of her stories stood out in my mind. She came home from work one day only to find a snake in her hut. It wasn't just an ordinary snake, however. The snake was a long as her house was wide! At that moment I decided that one day I wanted to experience such wild adventures. I wanted to become a volunteer.
Some fifteen years later I was invited to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. Guatemala? Wasn't that the name of a green-colored dip? I had no idea where the country was located. Moreover, I knew no Spanish—except si, no, cerveza (beer), and a swear word.
My command of the Spanish language apparently did not impress the language teachers in Guatemala. They placed me in the slowest language class for the three-month training period. After one month of intensive language classes, we were given an assignment: Take a bus to another town, bargain for some goods at the open market, and come home. Most trainees happily embarked on this task. Away they went using their Spanish to see if they were getting on the right bus. Then there was me. the one from the slowest language class. The only thing I was able to say to the bus driver at that point was "I wash myself with soap and water."
Guatemala is a beautiful country in Central America full of black sand beaches, hot steamy jungles, and towering volcanos that spew red lava. It is also one of the two countries in Latin America where approximately fifty percent of the population is comprised of indigenous persons. Although Guatemala has historically been a country overwrought with political turmoil and corruption, the Guatemalan people were friendly and caring towards their neighbors from the north.
As a youth development worker, I was required to implement a recreation program for children of all ages in my community of 9,000. In many ways my work was easier to do compared to other forms of volunteer work. Recreation? The Guatemalans couldn't wait to sign up. They loved recreation and sports! Compare this reception to that of the volunteer whose job was to introduce efficient ways of growing maize to persons who had been growing it the same way for hundreds of years!
The youth development program troubled some volunteers. They felt there were far more important development projects than those that seemed to revolve around fun and games. While this also troubled me, I decided that development is necessary in all aspects of culture, not just in agriculture, forestry, or health. Another factor to consider is that Guatemalans have the basics for living: food, shelter, water, etc. For that reason, I believed recreation was an appropriate program for the country.
Articles about "volunteerism" abound, but rarely do they focus on the specific benefits to the volunteer. My experience in the Peace Corps allowed me to grow in ways that a typical job would not. The experience has helped me in both my work and social relationships. Listed below are the areas in which I gained the most from my volunteer experience.
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closed down for the afternoon to be sprayed with disinfectant. I should have told the children that the locker rooms were closed to be sprayed with disinfectant (the Spanish word is poison). The Spanish words for poison and banana, by the way, are very similar. As usual, I confused the two terms and said that the locker rooms were closed because they had been sprayed with bananas! Needless to say, the children laughed at me.
Being humbled (on a daily basis) has its virtues. It lets others know that we are all humans, and that humans all make mistakes. For Guatemalans, it was especially reassuring to them when they saw me make mistakes. It let them know that I was not perfect. More importantly, however, it reminded me that I wasn't perfect.
As part of my work, I planned meetings in the evening because that was the ideal time to meet. For a year and a half, I predictably arrived at these meetings fifteen minutes early. And Guatemalans, for the two years I was there, predictably arrived one and a half to two hours late! It didn't make sense! What took them so long to come to a meeting? There was never a real explanation for this tardiness that I could see, it was just how things were done. My Guatemalan friends never looked guilty when they arrived so late, it was simply expected ... by everyone but me!
This chronic tardiness led me to believe that things would never change in Guatemala if people couldn't even come to meetings on time. Then I began to wonder, was I there to really try and change things? To show them the "American way" (or at least my way) of doing things? Eventually I understood that my purpose in being there was to introduce new ideas, different ideas, and to focus less on the "change" aspect. Ironically, if anyone changed as a result of my presence in Guatemala, it was me!
These are just a few things that I got out of my experience as a volunteer. Granted, you don't have to join the Peace Corps to gain these kinds of insights about life. Volunteering at a local agency can provide you with many rewarding and enjoyable experiences. The volunteer environment provides a great opportunity to learn about humility, cultural sensitivity, coping strategies, and much more. As a volunteer, you can take chances that will allow you to learn about yourself in ways that you might not be willing to try in a paid employment situation. Try it! Maybe it will be the best job you ever had!
Barbara Elwood Schlatter served as a youth development worker in Guatemala from 1984-86. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Chicago State University.
Peace Corps Brochure. Washington, D.C.
Viorst. M. 1986. Making a Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-five. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator