Volunteering

WHY?

… because it will change your life in ways you never knew possible, so the real question is… WHY NOT?

Shanty town in Lima, Peru

Shanty town in Lima, Peru

People need our help, plain and simple. The contrast between the rich and the poor in this world is astounding. We are more than capable as individuals to get involved whether it means making a donation to an organization, sponsoring a child, raising awareness locally, traveling abroad and physically helping, or even just educating ourselves on local and international issues. All of these actions help to make us better global citizens.

Shanty towns as far as your eye could see in Lima, Peru

Shanty towns as far as your eye could see in Lima, Peru

Where have I volunteered?

  • Lima, Peru (Shanty towns of Lima, Peru through Solidarity Experiences Abroad in 2010)
  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Favellas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil through Solidarity Experiences Abroad in 2011)

Why did I decide to do this?

When I was in high school I had a teacher in Grade 11 who was extremely passionate about the world around us and all of the issues happening each day. It was his passion and drive towards social awareness that pushed me into asking questions and wanting to get involved too. I went with this teacher and other students on a field trip to Toronto to see Craig and Mark Kielburger, from Free The Children speak at a conference and was blown away and inspired on a whole new level. I also did a project in my Grade 12 “World Issues” class on Joseph Kony and the child soldiers of Uganda, which I became very passionate about and knew I needed to do more with my life.

Once I entered university, my goal was to find an organization that I could get involved with and use my passion and drive towards helping others. I found out about Brock University’s ‘Solidarity Experiences Abroad’ organization and I knew it was for me. Without hesitation I decided to attend my first volunteer trip to Peru in June of 2010. After Peru, I knew I had found something I loved.

Reunited with this little girl one year later in Lima, Peru

Reunited with this little girl one year later in Lima, Peru

Experience #1: Lima, Peru

  • We brought two suitcases each (one with our own belongings and one with donations to the local community).
  • Worked in a small shanty town community where we built stairs. Stairs were helpful for the people of the community as the shanty towns are built on massive sand hills and it was difficult for people to get to the higher elevations.
  • Our group ran a dental campaign for the children, which consisted of us acting out a skit and singing in Spanish.
  • University students who were interested in teaching or nursing had opportunities to work in a local school or hospital for experience.
  • One of the days we took a bus full of local children to a playground/small amusement park where they had the opportunity to just be kids and see a new landscape.
  • Spent a lot of time just hanging out/playing with the local children, which was amazing.
  • The community threw us a fiesta when we finished building the stairs to thank us and show their appreciation, if anything, they helped me more than I helped them.

What did I learn in Peru?

As cliche as it may sound, Peru honestly changed me as a person. I had never seen such horrific levels of poverty in my life and it was a massive shock. I will never forget the overwhelming emotions I experienced on my first day in the Lima shanty towns. I realized how lucky I was and how much I didn’t appreciate even the small things I had, such as access to clean water.

I went to Peru with the attitude that I was going to help them but that isn’t what happened. They helped me. I met a little boy who stole my heart. As we built the stairs next door to his house each day, I would always see him with his little sister. He was seven and she was two and they lived with their father. Their father was helping our group build the stairs and the little boy took full responsibility of his sister. If she fell down, he picked her up and dusted her off. If we gave him a treat, he automatically shared it with her. When I was seven years old I was not like that to my little sister. The love within this community was endless and it hit me hard. The people within the community taught me that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you have but that love means more and everyone is equal, no one person is better than the next.

The stairs that we built and painted with the help of the local community in Lima, Peru

The stairs that we built and painted with the help of the local community in Lima, Peru

I also learned other things such as how to pack light… do we really need our hair straighteners, hair dryers, makeup, best jeans etc.? No, we don’t. We also can’t be picky in regards to food. We should just be thankful to have the opportunity to eat. Water also became a big thing for me. After working in the shanty towns, we would come back to our hostel and desperately need to shower. First of all… I would find myself complaining that we didn’t have any hot water and that there was no pressure in the shower head… someone should have backhanded me. We were lucky to even have water at all. In the shanty town there was a water truck that would drive up the sand banks and fill each person’s bucket with water, which had to last them for a while. How could I complain about not having hot water or good water pressure? Eventually I realized I was being an idiot and stopped. I should appreciate every time I even take a sip of clean water.

Something I didn’t expect to learn about was friendships. When I decided to go to Peru, I knew absolutely no one that would be on the trip. I had told one of my friends about it and she decided to embark on the journey with me, which was really nice. We were both forced to meet new people and we both made a ton of new friends before (at pre-departure meetings) and during the trip. I didn’t realize how important it is to surround yourself with like-minded people. Most people that I would have considered ‘friends’ at the time weren’t anything like me. I had a boyfriend at the time who did not support my decision to go to Peru and actually tried to convince me not to go. While on the trip I realized that there are other people out there who feel the same as me and are interested in the same things and I didn’t need negative people in my life. It was shortly after this trip that I finally had the courage to end the relationship that was literally sucking the life out of me. I also formed new friendships and made new connections with amazing people who I am still in touch with to this day.

Peru taught me to be thankful for everything and everyone I had in my life. It taught me to love with my whole heart and that everyone is equal. I realized that I should never have a reason to complain in life because there is always someone who has it worse. Most importantly, I discovered something I was passionate about. I knew from this trip forward that I wanted to live a more fulfilling life and give more to others.

One of the beautiful children within the community in Lima on the day of the dental campaign

One of the beautiful children within the community in Lima on the day of the dental campaign

Experience #2: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

  • In the same case as Peru, we brought two suitcases (one with our belongings and one with donations for the community).
  • We worked in the favellas at a community center.
  • Our job was to fix up the community center and we wanted to work on a special project of building a room specifically for young girls to hangout and feel safe. Unfortunately we were not able to complete the room due to how much work it involved and the building supplies coming late.
  • We did lots of painting projects to brighten up the center as well as build a garden.
  • We had lots of fun hanging out with the local children in the favellas, which consisted of a lot of soccer.
  • I had the opportunity to volunteer in a soup kitchen for the homeless… wow, that was a very memorable experience.
Our painting on the walls within the community center, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Our painting on the walls within the community center, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

These kids were awesome... stole my sunglasses and another girl's purse... Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

These kids were awesome… stole my sunglasses and another girl’s purse… Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

What did I learn in Brazil?

A lot of the same things that I learned in Peru can easily be applied to Brazil even though there were a lot of differences between the two countries. I was working in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro and quickly realized the poverty was not quite the same. The favellas were more colourful and the houses were more built up but poverty still existed just in a different kind of way. The issues in Rio de Janeiro were more hidden and focused on drugs and prostitution. I remember the first time we arrived in the favellas, a child was holding a gun and staring at our bus as we drove by. I immediately felt less safe than I did when we were in Peru. Something that Raoul (the Solidarity Experiences Abroad organizer) said to me was that Brazil is difficult because it is easy to be blindsided by the country’s beauty… the colours, the coastline, the jungle, the beaches, the food, etc. and ignore the fact that there are real issues going on behind all of that. He was right.

A view from inside the favellas in Rio de Janeiro

A view from inside the favellas in Rio de Janeiro

The locals that we worked with at the community center were absolutely amazing, which did not come as a surprise of course. Again, we had children crawling all over us trying to help us with painting and gardening. They also wanted us to play with them a lot, which mostly consisted of soccer in the streets, piggy back rides etc. We also had an amazing cook at the community center who cooked us a local Brazilian dish called Feijoada every single day.

The issue we ran into was that we did not have enough building supplies or the proper workers for the girl’s room we were planning on building and this caused a lot of stress amongst our group. I quickly learned however, that things don’t always go as planned. I always get frustrated when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to but when you’re traveling or working on a different country’s time schedule this is going to happen often. I learned that we needed to work with what we had and put more effort into other things while staying positive.

Our group and some of the locals at the community center in Rio de Janeiro

Our group and some of the locals at the community center in Rio de Janeiro

One night I had the opportunity to volunteer in a soup kitchen for the homeless. I think for me, this was the most memorable experience. I still get emotional when I discuss what I witnessed there that night. I went with another girl and our Brazilian Solidarity Experiences Abroad representative named Alexandre. A homeless man approached Alexandre and gave him a hug. He then proceeded to thank Alexandre for treating him with respect and treating him like a human who was equal to him, which made him maintain his dignity. We couldn’t believe that he would even have to thank anyone for such a thing. Shouldn’t all people feel equal to others and respected all the time? It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I tell this story to people all of them time because it means a lot to me. I don’t even know how to explain what I learned that night about the world and myself.

Myself, standing on the roof of a church in Rio de Janeiro... the most epic views of all time

Myself, standing on the roof of a church in Rio de Janeiro… the most epic views of all time

Overall, Brazil opened my eyes to the fact that it is easy for tourists to forget about the behind the scenes issues with poverty, drugs, prostitution etc. when you’re on a vacation. It is easy to ignore the things you don’t want to think about when you’re in paradise, even if it’s not really a paradise after all. I will also never forget what I witnessed at the homeless shelter that night in Rio. I witnessed love and compassion, I witnessed something real. Raoul said something to me that will stick with me forever… he said that I am a much different girl when I am on the trips and he noticed how much I had changed from the year before in Peru. Again, he was right. Both Peru and Brazil changed me in ways I didn’t know were even possible. I found something I was passionate about. I never want to stop volunteering my time and energy if it means I get to meet these incredible people, whether it be locals or fellow volunteers. There are so many opportunities out there to make a difference in other people’s lives, whether big or small. I strongly encourage other people to explore these opportunities and do their part because you never know what will come of it.

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3 thoughts on “Volunteering

  1. Beautiful read!
    Next on my experience list is heading to south america and volunteering! It would be such an incredible and rewarding adventure. This post definitely confirmed that thought!
    Its a real shame so much of what’s published or in the media about global volunteer programs tend to be horror stories, or worded in such a way to build a barrier of fear in anyone looking into it. You mentioned not everyone was supportive, also being a female solo traveler, i can tell you not everyones always on board with my trips plans or itineraries! If you had to pick one spot, /or one area of developmental assistance, which one did you enjoy more?
    Happy travels! -ashlea

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