Does volunteering change you?

by Travel Paulie on August 17, 2010

Volunteering with Children

Last week I visited 3 separate Burmese refugee camps, the constituents of which are of the many ethnic groups from Burma/Myanmar, such as Karen, Chin, Mon, Shan, Kachin, and others.  The whole experience has left me with mixed feelings and since there really is a lot I can share about it, it makes it difficult to know where to start.  The article forms the first post on my new article category, ‘Reflections’, as it’s not so-much informational, but rather… editorial, for want of a better word.  Does volunteering and travel change you a person?  I believe there’s no escaping it.

First, a beautiful song

If you decide not to read the whole article, but would like to listen to what I heard while sitting in an orphans’ dormitory in a refugee camp a week ago, please watch the following video.  These are Karen children singing a traditional (?) Karen song.


I’m not trying to convince you…

When you read articles pertaining to volunteering and the experience that this has provided them, you will almost invariably be left with the notion that it’s a fantastical world out there, surreal, challenging, different and life-changing (“for you as much as those you go to help“).  If my tone is sounding a little cynical, then you’re very perceptive.

Why am I cynical?  Well because I am cynical in-general, and also when “amazing” things are told to you, usually they aren’t actually amazing.  Things just are what they are.

I never had high expectation that travelling and trying out a philanthropic approach to life was going to change me fundamentally and make me this wonderfully “new” evolved person who has been touched by the lives I have met.

I knew that I was heading out here for the experience of meeting new people and engaging different cultures, learning about/from them, and seeing how organisations are working to help these “relatively” impoverished communities.  Sure, change will come as I’m faced with new situations and I learn/adapt, but I don’t hope for it, since that would be hoping to be someone other than who I am.  If I wanted to be different, then I would simply be different.

I haven’t written an article so far in my blog expressing massive changes in me that have arisen as a result of my experiences, nor have I tried to persuade you to do the same thing as me because “it will change you forever“.  I find many articles written on volunteering to be greatly exaggerated and downright bloody well boring.  I get the feeling from them that they’re trying to convince me of something; trying to convince me that volunteering will change me, and my outlook on life, forever! Not only will the people you have gone to help learn from you, but you’ll learn from them too! There are just too many clichés to fit them all into this article and be readable, so I’ll stop now.

Perhaps these articles are written by people who have never really done prolonged volunteering/travelling and seeing something completely outside of their comfort zone is effectively life-altering.  Granted.  But there are also those who, I feel, have a need to pump up their experiences with really long adjectives to justify their decision to step outside of the “norm”.  By this I mean, if you side-step the rat-race for a while then it wouldn’t do to write about how “normal” life is, you gotta prove to people just how amazing everything has now become with your “alternative” choices.  If not to others, perhaps at least to yourself.  Or, maybe they really did have life-changing experiences.  Who knows?  But there is no shaking my gut-feeling that there’s an attempt at justification when I read some articles.

Emotionally charged

I’m not here to convince you of the merits of volunteering, or to convince you to do as I have done, or to come to Maesot because it’s sooo much better than where you are right now.  All I will say, however, is that the last week has been quite emotionally charged for me to say the least – probably the most-so since embarking on this little travel bonanza 7 months ago.

More specifically, I have witnessed the plight of the Burmese people much more close-up than I have before now.  Sure, I can read articles and essays on it, I can listen to news reports, I can even meet Karen migrants living here in a country that is not their own.  I understand their position as I learn more about them, and I sympathise with them and try to help, but until now I wasn’t fully emotionally engaged.

I think it has to do with education – my education.  How can I be sympathetic with someone and their plight without properly knowing what lies behind it?  Even now, I know I barely grasp what these people are suffering under, but my understanding has grown to the point where I feel I can see just how much I don’t understand.  There’s no way to qualify this, it just is.

Am I different?

Yes, of course.  I have written on this before, and I know that wherever we happen to be, we are changing as we learn from, and adapt to, the events that transpire in our lives.  So how have I changed?

When I started English teaching, part of what I wanted to attain was a greater level of comfort in the presence of children.  They’re random little creatures most of the time, and reflexively I don’t respond well to random.  I can say with certainty that this has been achieved… I just needed to spend more time with them.  As I’ve gotten to know my students more, and they me, my affection for all of them has soared.  The last few weeks have been really fun learning… they’re relaxed, I’m relaxed, and we’re all happy to be in the class.

This change has opened me up to engaging with children at all levels, in almost any environment I meet them.  The refugee camps are one such place – there are children everywhere!  Many have been born there and know nothing else in their lives.  Just try to imagine…

When I see at them working away in school, learning and studying to make life better for themselves, I know they are fighting their way through a system where the odds are stacked against them.  Sure, we can go and teach them English, even provide some computers to give them a relative edge, but all I see sometimes is the struggle they’re up against.  Often you wouldn’t know to look at them that the difficulty of their lives affects them at all… they seem incredibly resilient.  Sometimes however, if I take a second glance when they don’t think I’m looking, it’s possible to spot the sorrow in their eyes.  Words alone can’t describe the feelings that arise from seeing that look in a child’s eyes.

This last week has been a huge mix of feelings, from being inspired by the children, admiring their hard work and desire to push themselves and study, while then realising that they don’t even have simple things easy, living conditions are basic, and everyday life is a struggle for them and their families – I’m not just referring to the refugee camps.  I look at them any more without wanting to do all in my power to help fix it all for them.  Sometimes taking it all in is a little overwhelming.

And that’s the big change these last couple of weeks… becoming more connected with the people here, especially the children and being able to engage with them, understand their situation a little deeper, and witness the joy they seem to exude and the fun with which they often live their lives.

Long winded

This post is a little randomly written, and somewhat long-winded, but I felt I needed to relay the content herein.  It’s the emotional highs and the lows that I’m here to experience and I have to take the good with the bad.

Here is a link to a TED video which helped me put into perspective the enormity of the problems we face as we travel to, and volunteer in, areas with serious “problems”.

If you liked this article, in-spite of the length, please feel free to share it with people you know.  You can do so easily using the Facebook icon below in a couple of clicks.  Also, if you have any comments either agreeing, or disagreeing, with any of my views expressed here, I’d be happy to hear them.  Please use the space provided below and I will respond.

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