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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The Different Faces of Volunteering

The llamas I herded being good for once

Imagine being in a strange country, thousands of kilometres away from anything familiar, trying to catch a llama that has (once again) escaped its enclosure. Sounds like something from a bad comedy, but this was 18-year-old me’s reality for three weeks. I can tell you, llamas are fast, cheeky, and rather moody animals. I spent many hours trying to get them out of a plot of grass where they did not belong. Besides the llamas, I also had to herd three sheep and two cows, it was almost like handling 15 toddlers. Not the first thing you think about when going volunteering.

It wasn’t the easiest job, and fortunately these animals only needed to be led from one place to another twice a day. The remainder of my time was spent reading books, cracking walnuts, and helping out with the construction of the host family’s new eco-home. In all honesty, I had a difficult time. I was homesick, there was no WIFI (a first world problem if I ever encountered one), and the llamas didn’t like me much. But, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t learnt a lot about being on my own, farm life, and the way of life in a remote part of Argentina.

But what about other people? How do they experience volunteering? That is what I would like to show you the different faces of volunteering. I wanted to explore what it’s like to leave behind your normal world for a while to help out others. To do so, I sat down with Chiara and Julia to talk about their experiences as volunteers to do just that. Both found their volunteering spots through UNSA but ended up in vastly different places.

The first experience I heard about sounded my nicer than my own. Chiara set off for Brazil in the Summer of last year. The organisation she was volunteering for is called Operação Brasil in Belo Horizonte which aims at improving the community. Chiara describes how children in the area often did not have a place to go after school and would be left to their own devices in the favela. Operação Brasil was founded by two sisters so that these children would have a place to be. The project which Chiara worked on was a five-year project to build a new centre where these children could go. Through the physical labour, she forged a strong bond with the other volunteers as well as with the children who were almost always around. Chiara told me that, between all the hard work and being lost in translation, there was a lot of singing involved. It definitely sounds better than chasing llamas around.

However, Chiara admitted it was not always easy. One of the hardest things for her was leaving to a far-off country with less information than she may have wanted, a feeling I can completely relate to. With little knowledge of Portuguese, the place and people Chiara would be around, getting on the plane was a bit frightening. Once she arrived her biggest problem was the amount of physical work she had to do. Chiara could hardly believe how tired she was when she returned to Europe. But she said she would do it all again, if she had the time. If I had the time, I think I would join her (maybe lose some weight in the process).

The second girl I talked to, Julia on the other hand, stayed in Europe. She volunteered for Citizens of Europe which is based in Berlin. Their main goal is to promote European citizenship across the Union through different projects and volunteering. A far cry from a construction site in Brazil, Julia was working in the more bureaucratic side. Volunteering doesn’t always have to be hard manual labour or have your plans be guided by the mischievous minds of farm animals. Part of Julia’s tasks were to help volunteers throughout Europe to find fitting organisations and to help organise a Democratic Youth Festival in Sweden. Julia described that it was great to see how many young people in Europe wanted to help others without financial gain. Another thing she enjoyed was the amount of independence she had working. It may have been a struggle to learn how to place phone calls without sounding nervous (something I too struggle with), but at the same time Julia could make some quite big decisions on her own.

Julia did say that if she had been able to spend more than a month working for Citizens of Europe she would have want to come up and plan a project herself. But, besides the intense Summer heat in Berlin, there was very little which she was dissatisfied with. Granted, I also do not do well in +27oC. The only thing she would warn others is that it is more of an office job which diverges from the main idea that volunteering has to be in an exotic country helping children or animals. Her experience shows us that volunteering can be done so much closer to home and with the same level of fulfilment (though perhaps fewer muscles to show for it).

These three short stories already tell you something about what is possible and what you can expect from three very different forms of volunteering. Whether you would want to hang out with children while working in construction, chase llamas to your heart’s content, or spend some time helping people express their European identity, there is a volunteering opportunity for everyone. Chiara, Julia, and I, can at least vouch for the fulfilment you feel afterwards, despite any hardship.

Interested in volunteering but don’t know where to start? The UNSA Development Committee provides all sorts of opportunities. Just follow the link:


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