By Adrian Alvarez Valenzuela, Poverty Activist team August 2022
Of course, this has to be necessarily the primary reason not to give up on volunteering. When we think about dedicating our time to volunteering, we all do it with the same goal and for the same reason: we firmly believe that a better world is possible, and we want to actively contribute to that change by adding our small grain of sand.
And indeed, you will leave that mark and contribute that grain of sand with your collaboration. Depending on the field in which you collaborate, sometimes that grain will be larger, perhaps other times it will be more imperceptible, but it will always be important.
All improvement processes have their rhythms, sometimes faster and sometimes more imperceptible. But don't forget that when cooperation projects decide to involve people external to the project in their day-to-day activities, they do so aware that every task, every activity, brings a benefit and contributes to change (yes, that change in which you firmly believe and which calls you to be a part of it).
So if the idea of actively getting involved for a better world resonates within you, and if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and give your best, go ahead!
There is no better reason than this to set aside your fears and get moving. Because, together, a fairer world is possible.
If you're someone who finds it difficult to give and receive displays of affection, there's no better shock therapy!
I don't think there's anyone who has participated in social volunteering (and I would dare to say in any other field) who can deny it. Regardless of the country, language, field of collaboration, age, gender... regardless of everything: during a solidarity trip, you give a lot of affection and receive it back multiplied by a thousand.
Warm greetings, knowing looks, smiles for no apparent reason, sincere hugs... these are constant on a solidarity trip. And this is a great learning experience and a life lesson that you won't forget, because life is easier when faced with a smile, even when there may not always be reasons to smile.
The goal of your trip and the approach you take will determine the lessons you take home when you return. Just as traveling on an organized tour by a tourism company is completely different from backpacking independently, arriving at a destination as a tourist is not the same as arriving as a volunteer. What you gain from each experience, the depth of the lessons you acquire, is very different.
Getting involved in a cooperation project and volunteering means being immersed in the society and culture that welcome you. It means experiencing that new reality from within, far removed from the experience of tourists or travelers who may visit the country for a few days of vacation.
It means discovering a country from a different perspective, moving away from historical monuments and obligatory visits, and getting closer to traditions, language, routines, daily life, and the essence of a new culture.
It means going from being a mere spectator to becoming an active part of that reality. And I don't want to jump ahead, but that involvement from within can transform you in ways you can't even imagine.
It is a true luxury, a gift, to live among tribal communities, minority ethnic groups, cultures, and religions different from your own, with customs that are light-years away from those in your own country. It is a magical opportunity to discover, learn, refrain from judgment, and form informed opinions.
Indeed, what captivates all travel enthusiasts is the learning that comes from changing our perspective when we travel. And this shift in perspective, which already occurs naturally and almost inevitably when traveling, becomes tremendously powerful when you observe and experience the reality around you from within and when you become part of the community you are collaborating with.
If the memories of the people we encounter when we travel, with whom we share a few days on the road, a spontaneous conversation, or a simple beer, bring a smile to our faces, in volunteering, this is multiplied (once again).
The people with whom you share such an intense experience, both fellow volunteers and individuals from the community you are collaborating with, will become part of a different, transformative journey that will leave a lasting impact. Therefore, all these people will also become part of your life, and many of them will stay forever.
The bond created among people who participate together in volunteering is as strong as the experience they share: equally powerful, equally intense, equally special, equally magical... How can this happen? I don't know, but it does. The act of discovering a new reality together, of being surprised by our own strengths and weaknesses, of sharing the day-to-day in an environment that is not always friendly and unfamiliar to both, brings people together. And it brings them together strongly. And that bond that is created endures. Even living in different cities, even if you don't maintain daily contact, that bond that has formed does not disappear when you return home and settle back into your routine.
And what can be said about the community you are going to collaborate with? Unbeknownst to them, these people become teachers of life and teach you a thousand and one things with the naturalness of those who do not consider themselves wise. How mistaken they are! The daily work, spontaneous hugs, conversations about their world and yours, smiles, and knowing looks. In these small things, a connection is forged that will last forever, even if you never see each other again. From the children playing on the street to the elderly person you pass by every day on the same corner. All the people you interact with will become an indelible part of your experience. And don't think that cultural distance or language are obstacles, far from it—affection and care break barriers!
An international volunteering experience is a perfect opportunity to put your knowledge of another language into practice or even dabble in learning a new one. Since you likely won't have any other alternative, you will leave behind shyness and insecurities and immerse yourself in making yourself understood and communicating with the local population. You'll be surprised to discover that you know much more than you think! Once again, it was fear and self-consciousness that held you back from taking that step to practice another language.
Furthermore, you'll realize that you don't need to master a language perfectly to be able to communicate; you simply need to dare: whether it's stuttering a few words or if you already have a good command of the language, you can engage in conversations that will greatly enrich your experience.
And if you are completely unfamiliar with the language of the place you are traveling to, don't hesitate to learn basic phrases to greet, say thank you, or ask for a bottle of water. You will quickly see grateful smiles for your effort to integrate into the new community.
We can all agree that there is no better remedy for closed minds and prejudices than traveling. Believe it or not, we all have prejudices and stereotypes, and inevitably, we carry them in our baggage when we travel.
And once again, I'm referring to the multiplying effect of solidarity travel compared to traditional travel: if traveling already opens our minds and distances us from our prejudices inevitably, the volunteering experience does so even more powerfully. Your mind opens up, and you become capable of understanding things that seemed inconceivable to you, putting yourself in others' shoes, and accepting that not everything is black or white, but rather that the scale of gray is infinite. You are able to kill those preconceived ideas you brought from home.
When we don't travel, the world becomes small. So small that it is reduced to our immediate surroundings. However, stepping away from that comfort zone—especially through such a unique and intense experience like volunteering—forces us to open our minds, question our ideas and values (whether to reaffirm them or challenge them), and broaden our perspective.
And suddenly, it happens: prejudices crumble, and the world, with all its richness, opens up before our eyes, allowing us to grow and mature.
After confronting and living with harsh and challenging realities, or at least realities that are not as comfortable as your own, your way of looking at life and the world changes irreversibly. Suddenly, and without knowing exactly how, everything changes, and it changes a lot.
Life simplifies itself at times, everything becomes easier, and complications magically disappear. You face each day with a smile, which is free and requires no effort.
Priorities are realigned, and you become aware of the true importance of things, of what truly matters and what doesn't. Problems become relative, and what used to be a small problem no longer is, while what used to be a big problem becomes an insignificant complication.
Your scale of values is altered: you appreciate things that you didn't pay much attention to before, and you ignore or place lower importance on things that were once considered necessities.
You value your freedom and feel fortunate to be free, to have the ability to choose and be the master of your own life. You infinitely appreciate all the opportunities that this grants you.
You become conscious of the many created, non-real needs that you have.
It's an idea that I repeat often, and I will continue to do so because it's something that should reach as many people as possible. Collaborating in a cooperation project and embarking on a solidarity journey is not an isolated experience that begins and ends as if nothing happened. It is a profound enough experience to leave a lasting impact beyond a few weeks or months of volunteering. It is transformative enough to change the lenses through which you view the world, intense enough to turn everything you thought was static and immovable upside down, and generous enough to leave you with a valuable inheritance that allows you to face life differently upon your return.
Self-awareness is a challenge for which one is never fully prepared; it is always difficult to confront our own fears, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Similarly, we tend to be quite modest about what we excel at and what we are really good at. It seems that we are never quite good enough at something to boast and feel proud of ourselves.
New situations, especially when they occur outside of our comfort zone, put us in that predicament and force us to look at ourselves head-on, without filters, with our weaknesses and our strengths. In other words, they confront us with ourselves and make us connect with our most invisible "self".
Does it scare us? Yes, of course. But at the same time, it is an incredible journey of personal growth and self-discovery: seeing yourself face completely new and unimaginable situations, improvising to solve everyday situations that you are not accustomed to, living with your prejudices until you come to the conclusion that they made no sense... All of this brings out the best and the worst in each one of us, uncovers fears and insecurities, but also strengths and potentialities. It is fantastic to have the opportunity to discover ourselves in the good, the bad, and the mediocre. You will be surprised to discover facets of yourself that were previously unknown to you; you will smile if you like what you see, or you will note it down in your mental list of "things to improve" if you're not quite pleased with that new side of yourself you have discovered.
In any case, volunteering is also a very intense experience in this sense because it brings forth new sensations and feelings, unexpected responses and reactions, and surprising thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors within yourself.
Although it is closely related to the change in the way of looking at the world that I mentioned earlier, here I refer to a deeper and more personal transformation because the person who returns from participating in a volunteer experience is not the same person who boarded the plane a few weeks ago to embark on their journey. As I always say, there are things that change and leave a mark, and they do so forever.
Priorities, values, needs... everything changes, but most importantly, you change. You change in an almost imperceptible way to the eyes of others, but the change within you exists without the possibility of going back: serenity and calmness become faithful life companions, and you reconnect with your inner self and the true essence of life and others.