Meredith: Volunteering can be problematic

June 8, 2010

Humans like to be altruistic, or at least I think so. Being altruistic, truly altruistic, is another story.

We like to think we are making a difference, doing some good, impacting the lives of others. Yet we don’t want to put in the time or effort to actually achieve this, we just want to feel like we’ve achieved something good without straining ourselves or going too much out of our way.

I know that this trip isn’t about volunteering, but there is a “volunteer” component included. There has been some controversy over it in the past because apparently students complained that there was not enough of a volunteer component but then when students went to volunteer at places where they would play with street-children, that wasn’t exactly what they were looking for so they stopped doing that. Some even gave the excuse that their fingernails were getting too dirty.

Our group is only here for three weeks, so there’s a limited amount we can do to “volunteer”—and organizations know this. We don’t do poverty tours, we aren’t going to go in the shanty towns and make a spectacle of their lives, take pictures, and go back to our comfortable lives and forget. Yet we can’t go to other places either, because it would be much more of struggle and a waste of time to show us the ropes of the place. We would only be there for a short time and wouldn’t be able to do that much anyway. Sometimes it’s better to give money.

Today a couple of us got in a tiny heated debate about our volunteer experience yesterday. One of the organizations that let us come in and help out for the day was one that runs an after school program for street children, helping them with their homework, offering them snacks, and most of all company and affection. We went in, helped them with their homework, played with them, and learned about their conditions.

I was helping out this boy Mauricio with his homework. He totally gave me the cold shoulder and told me to talk to the hand. He called over other professors and was saying “ella no sabe nada, quiero otro profesor” (she doesn’t know anything, I want another professor). This was just one experience there, but it was what I remembered most the next morning when, on my walk to school, I told my friend Sara that my career as a teacher started and ended yesterday.

If you know me at all, that’s how I speak a lot of the times. Hyperbolic. Dramatic. I wasn’t serious, and now that I look deeper at yesterday, I can understand more. It was amazing to go to the place and see how they were helping these children, but even doing that made it feel like we were making them a spectacle, peering through a looking glass at a far away scene that we could easily be removed from. And we were. Night rolls around, eight o’ clock comes, and the day is over. We leave, and I will probably never see those kids again.

One girl said it was worth it, that she was glad we went even if it was one day because she knows the extent of their need and will leave stuff for them, extra clothes, shoes she won’t wear, maybe a towel. I agree, maybe. I’m not sure though. I was glad to see that there were volunteers there. That these kids had somewhere to go. But that’s it. I think what disturbed me most about Mauricio not wanting me to help him was the fact that it hit too close to home to my uneasiness. We did exactly what we should not do: go in for a day and leave. These kids don’t need that, they need constant companionship, someone steady. Sometimes no volunteering is better than volunteering if it will be like that, only because if I do good, I want to mean it. I don’t want to do more harm than good.

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