I fully understand why people volunteer. It gives them a good, warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside, like hot chocolate on a winter night or the sound of laughter from the mouth of a young child. Volunteering is simply one of those special things that special people do. Some people do it to fill in time, some people do it in the hopes that they can make an impact and some people do it because it breeds a feeling of elation that isn’t connected to an alcoholic or drug related endeavor. The release of pheromones, (you know the same ones you get when you burn off steam in a rigorous weight room workout), is unlike any other. Volunteering is a healthy antidote to finding meaning and purpose in life. It is also an excellent way to pay it forward.
I also now fully understand why people do not volunteer. After all, it is free labor and volunteering can take a toll, especially on the volunteer. Governments, non-profits, for-profits and charities alike, all support volunteering and even have their own designated programs. The entities engaged in these programs, sell the idea that it is strictly for the communities and for the people they serve rather than for money or public image improvement. And while there might be some truth to that, volunteering can also be or border on indentured servitude.
I am 46 years old and as I reflect over what has happened in my volunteer teaching in Chile, I came to a realization that I have been volunteering since I was 14 years old. 14 years old! Whew, that’s a mighty long time! My very first volunteer experience was working at the University of Miami’s hospital. Being that my mother worked at the medical school, I began working as a candy striper, also known as a volunteer assistant nurse, helping with sick children. I have always given my free time to good causes, but the Chile volunteer teaching experience soured me to my core. They say, “never say never”, but after my teaching experience, I didn’t think I would ever volunteer again.
The English Opens Doors Program partnered with the Ministry of Education of Chile has the right idea. Teaching English to school aged children offers kids the ability to learn a new language that they would not be able to do otherwise without a hefty financial cost. The issue, however, is when schools are not fully supportive of the program and the volunteers that are regionally placed in the school’s location are left pondering why the signed up to be mistreated and mishandled. For example, in my position, my head English teacher was not on board with my being there. He was grossly bigoted and it showed up in many ways. This led to me ultimately wearing down over time, getting tired of the private niceties and public charades. I got tired of always being the one to be flexible and professional at all cost. I got tired of being scolded and reprimanded for something that was not my fault. I got tired of it happening in front of others. I got tired of sitting in a cold and vacant classroom all day without teaching and no explanation from him as to why (I mean after all that is why I thought I came to the country). I got tired of seeing his homophobic jokes/slurs on social media. I got tired of him speaking in Spanish, (in my presence), without a word of translation in English (when he is fluent in both languages). I got tired of trying to hide my name because he told me not to use it since it meant ‘bad luck’ and ‘big mouth’. I got tired of having to constantly explain that my middle name does not mean that I am deadly sniper. I got tired of my requests and concerns going ignored by him. I got tired of the lazy, nonchalant and unconcerned attitudes and how it trickled down to the students. I got tired of the excuses given to explain why these things happened or didn’t happen and yet continued to happened. I got tired of the lack of interest in English and support of the program. I got tired of bending over backwards time and time again, giving it 1000%, only to be met with resistance and disinterest. I simply got tired. Yet, somehow, in spite of all of that I could see myself returning.
July 7th, the Saturday after the semester ended, I found myself traveling to Viña del Mar to prepare for English Winter Camp and the following week traveling to San Antonio for another. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to either. I was ready to leave before the semester ended and surely was ready to leave immediately after. Nevertheless, I showed up to both, prepared to fulfill my volunteer obligations. The unexpected happened. I thoroughly enjoyed my camp experiences and I am very happy that my time in Chile ended on positive note.
English Winter Camp involves one week of immersion in English language learning, where the kids have multiple opportunities to practice their English through interactive and dynamic activities that include role playing, performances, group projects, competitions, lip sync battles, theatrical plays, and more. I was able to team up with a great Camp Monitor (who is a local Chilean English Teacher), a group of other EODP Volunteers (including my wife, Vanessa) and Chilean University Students who are studying to become English teachers. The biggest thing that hit me was knowing that the students at the camp, voluntarily signed up to be there, meaning this was something that they wanted as opposed to it being involuntary. One student I met in Viña, took public transportation 2 hours a day coming to the camp and another 2 hours going back home at the end of the day. That was 4 hours per day of travel alone, with 7 hours of English Camp for a total of 11 hours of his free time on his winter break. He was often there, before the volunteers arrived. If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. The kids who came to the camps were amazing! They touched me in a special way and for this reason, I won’t say that I will never volunteer again.