Sometimes in the process of helping others, we find ourselves being helped as well. Amy McPherson writes about her experience being a volunteer and what she learned from her trip to Peru.
December 2005 marked another year for me, working for the same company doing the same job; I was tired, frustrated with the lack of progress in my life when other friends have made their way into companies and organizations that were having more impact on the world than just making money. I wanted to do something, I wanted to get out but I didn’t just want another average holiday. I wanted to do something good.
It was then I decided to take three months off to join a community development project with World Youth International, and found myself getting my hands dirty alongside twelve other similar minded young Australians in Peru.
The thirteen of us were completely different people. Some had just come straight out of high school; two were graphic designers; one was a scientist and another, a factory hand. To think if we had met each other on the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, we would never have acquainted ourselves with each other. Our common goal brought us together, from the first meeting on the flight to the end of project; we became each other’s treasured memories and friends for life.
Our three months program was divided into two parts, working closely with the communities on the things that mattered. We were taught Spanish and the basics of development planning to ensure that we integrate into the communities and were working to a protocol. Each and every one of us wanted to do our best and that we contribute as much as possible.
We stayed with local families, whom welcomed us with open arms. Despite language difficulties I managed to form a strong bond with my ‘host parents’ and their children, and every day after work I sat in the kitchen helping with peeling potatoes and learning how to do things the traditional way.
Throughout the three months, we painted doors, built pathways, dug toilets and bricked walls; we taught at the local school, played with the children, attempted to herd sheep and helped with domestic chores. We laughed and cried together, shared the basic meals of potatoes, rice and beans, and helped each other through sickness and emotional struggle. The volunteers and the families alike began as strangers to me became my family; and when they are still willing to sit next to you after both of your haven’t washed for a week, you know you are friends for life.
Working with rural communities had been a great experience in learning about life. Unlike the lifestyle in cities were value is measured in currency and material goods, rural communities value the basics of survival; food, shelter and water are the most important things to families and without access to a lot of the modern facilities I found myself enjoying the simpler way of life and appreciating the natural resources we had.
What I also learned was that we take too many things for granted. We complain about having to go to school, then we complain about having to work, to earn money; we are constantly unhappy in our lives that we don’t see just how lucky we are.
My experience has also taught me about the concept of ‘helping others’. In a way that sometimes, we are the ones that need to be helped, need to have our eyes opened to the world and need to realize that our ways are not always the best ways.
Read more on this topic: Voluntourism: Benefit or Harm?
The communities gave us a big send off on our last day, where there were hugs and tears all round. On the hindsight, our contributions had been little, as their lives have not changed just because we have been there; it was my life that was changed, my values shifted and most importantly, my friendship and family circle expanded.
In the end, it was me who got the most out of this experience after all.
Have you got a volunteering experience to share? What are your views on ‘voluntourism’? Let us know in the comments below.