I have no overwhelming single answer to the question posed above. In just over two years, Alicia and I have observed a range of motivating impulses that have brought 240 volunteers from age 8 to 79 years old to Guatemala, assisting us in building Project Somos Children’s Village. I will share some volunteering motivations I have observed and make a few recommendations if you intend to be a volunteer.
We have had the good fortune to work with two volunteer businesses based in Vancouver – Stratosphere International Community Education and El Camino VolunTours. They organize volunteer trips with Project Somos and other projects working in the world to improve local social and environmental conditions. Some of our volunteers have been groups coming from high schools offering “service trips” and other volunteers have come as a group of individuals, varying in age and backgrounds. With both types of volunteer groups, we are always grateful for their interest, willingness to spend the time and resources to work here, and their ongoing support after their trip.
I believe it is always a good question to ask anyone interested in volunteering – why they wish to participate. The answer to this varies widely and could be – to visit and experience another culture, to help those in need, to travel, to fulfill scholastic requirements for “service” hours, to learn another language, to have an adventure, to do some environmental work, to use professional skills one has learned, to fulfill a requirement of a particular religion, to meet other people, or to join friends or family members that are volunteering. We have had volunteers with all of the reasons above.
I have observed the volunteer’s time here in Guatemala and I have seen that there is a correlation between the motivating impulse to volunteer and their overall positive or negative experience. There are three main factors, in my observations, to have a positive and fulfilling experience from volunteering. One is that the motive streams from an unselfish concern for the welfare of others. The second is that one abandons all expectations of what one will encounter and the third is that one comes with a willingness to do whatever is needed. These three facets, not always easy to acquire, form a solid foundation to have a very rewarding time.
We have seen volunteers that have tagged along with volunteering friends and they found themselves unhappy and resentful – not what they signed up for. We have experienced some members in school groups unable to engage perhaps because they came for only their service hours and we watched them complain and count the days to their departure. Some volunteers have great professional skills that cannot be directly transferred to the Guatemalan culture or our work site and have had very specific preconceived ideas of how to exercise their expertise – frustration arrived soon after. The good news is that the vast majority of volunteers that we have hosted at Project Somos have had an exciting, wonderful, trip of a lifetime, never to be forgotten.
It is our wish that all our volunteers have a rich and profound experience, but Project Somos cannot engineer that. Even with the comprehensive cultural and travel orientation that the volunteer organizations conduct, it cannot guarantee a positive experience. The best way to have a great experience is to check the motivation, leave your expectations at home, and come with an open mind and heart, ready to do anything.