I can still recall those hot, sticky afternoons where I would sit in an office or a meeting room, waiting for my mother to finish seeing her patients. At times I would be armed with colouring pencils, or allowed to wander around the hospital grounds. If I was really lucky, I got to play around with puppies at the disability centre.
This was my earliest exposure, at the age of 5, to volunteering. At that age, it meant getting hauled between hospital meetings, Red Cross events, and peoples’ homes. My mother held me firm with one hand, and the other was generally swinging a stethoscope.
Mum was quick to volunteer. She was a flying doctor for a number of years, spending weeks away from home to provide medical aid to the community who lived deep in the jungles of Borneo. She relished every second.
I wonder if the exposure I had as a child was intentional. I suspect now that it was. My mother orchestrated every move. The values that she intended to impart, subtly or otherwise, led me on a number of my own adventures to distant lands.
At 24, I took my first volunteer trip to a town called Moyobamba, in the North of Peru. I arrived, speaking no Spanish, naïve and excited. I volunteered at a little village clinic, worked with nurses and doctors to bring medical care to people who didn’t have access to hospitals. I ate fried ants for breakfast, camped out in remote villages, experienced an earthquake in the jungle and was held at gun point. I’ve been back twice. I met some remarkable people and had some incredible adventures.
India was next, a stint to Calcutta this time. Surely this would be the pinnacle of volunteering, working for Mother Theresa’s mission? Here I spent a couple of months working with disabled women and the terminally ill. I remember on the first day, leaving the confined security of my taxi thinking ‘what the heck have I signed up to?’ India tested every limit, assaulted every sense. It was confronting.
What I took away though from these voyages was something that I’d carry for the rest of my life. Lessons on independence, adventure, gratitude and kinship. I was held captive by untouched beauty, but was also forced to stare into the depths of deprivation. I’ll never forget my time in Peru or India.
After returning from these trips, I went straight into studying and working. Volunteering was a distant memory. A decade flew by, yet the restlessness remained. I then figured, why not do something local? I signed up to volunteer for Everybody Eats and have not looked back since. Everybody Eats ties together three elements that are important to me (social justice, service and sustainability) into one clever channel. There’s also the additional perk of being in the collective presence of people with a common goal—it’s invigorating.
So why volunteer?
In this age, where we seem to be increasingly isolated and where the depth of our communication doesn’t tend to extend beyond the superficial (except with a select few), volunteering has enabled me to connect to with people in a genuine and meaningful way. It also helped me to live beyond my own ‘9-5 life’, to understand that being a part of and serving within a community is enriching, rewarding and genuinely fun. I’ve received more out of it than I’d expected.
So—go forth and volunteer! Go and do something that’s bigger than you.
Go abroad if you like but don’t overlook local volunteering opportunities. There are many adventures to be had right here in NZ. There are a multitude of causes to choose from: save some whales, plant some trees, hangout with old or young people, tutor some kids, build some schools—whatever inspires you.
Do it with an open mind, and don’t be surprised if you learn some valuable lessons and pick up a couple of lifelong friends along the way.