“If you come only to help me, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle for survival, then maybe we can work together.”
–An Aboriginal Woman
I discovered this quote yesterday when visiting Timberland’s social responsibility site. Turns out, they give more than just timbos for your toes. This quote moved me because I think it’s one of the most beautiful ways I’ve seen the sentiment put into words.
I’ll be honest, when I began my adventure this time last year, heading to Asia for 5 months to volunteer, I had my camera, a thirst for discovery, and a completely misguided notion about service. I thought that volunteer support, in any circumstance, adds value. I was wrong.
I saw volunteers who exploited their surroundings, individuals who complained constantly about their temporary living conditions, and people who most certainly put their own needs ahead of their host communities. Westerners can be ugly. I had a very heated coversation with a spoiled girl from California who thought it was ridiculous that American volunteers should pay a cent to volunteer if they are offering their $50,000/year college educated help. I asked her to consider the local organizations that she is helping. Can they afford to fly you from California to Thailand? Train you? House you? Feed you? Not to mention the fact that they are going to do all of this for you and you are going to spend 90% of the month that you should be volunteering at the beach.
I’m not a hater. I also discovered the beauty in international service. I saw it this summer in Nepal almost every day. I saw it in my dad’s tears, a guy who I’ve seen cry once in my life, when he said goodbye to a village that he grew to love after 2 short weeks. I heard when I layed in bed each night and heard the laughter erupt through broken Nepali and English phrases being traded from the house next door. I felt it, at my core, when a Maoist villager handed me his used bible on my last morning to thank me for bringing his community together.
My point: it’s all in how you look at the experience. If you go in thinking that you have all of the answers, don’t go. You’ll do more damage than good. If you go in thinking that you might just gain more than you can give, go. You will make a difference in at least two lives – one of them being your own.