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That’s right. I said it. I know that I should want to give back and volunteer, and yet I just can’t make myself add it to my To-Do list.
This bothers me down to my very core, but I am pretty sure it won’t change.
Why so sure? Because if I were going to volunteer, I would have by now. I have been traveling for over 2.5 years through places like Cambodia, Laos and India, not to mention I spent my early 20s living in Central America, younger and more naive than I am now.
And yet I never volunteer.
That’s not entirely true. I actually have volunteered, like when I taught English in Costa Rica to a group of local businesswomen in a small mountain town called Grecia when I was 20. I enjoyed the experience and in the end I think I got more out of it than they did, since I was in the middle of completing a BA in language teaching and this was my first experience teaching.
Although intellectually I know I should want to, I just can’t figure out why I have no urge to sign up for a few weeks somewhere.
Part of me keeps telling myself that I am at a point in my life where we are building a business and I don’t have the time to volunteer. Sure, Dani and I are free to, but we are making a go at creating something really sustainable with GlobetrotterGirls.com, and as a bootstrapping start-up that is time rich and financially poor, the only asset I have to continue to build this is my time. See – so I just caaaaan’t volunteer. Right?
On a lot of levels, that is a legitimate thought process, and I think this is one reason that the majority of people out there who could volunteer, don’t volunteer. With work, or kids, or life in general, we can all find some semi-legitimate excuse as to why we passively decide not to help others in need.
But that means that like most people, my understanding of volunteerism is that the only way to make a difference is to choose volunteering as a career path, or at least dedicate a period of my life to it.
Which is entirely untrue, and I know it.
I could easily dedicate a few weeks a year to helping a community in some way, especially because my location independence allows me to travel through just the kinds of places where people volunteer – you know (and please read sarcasm into this next part) third world countries filled with our socially constructed versions of ‘the other’, the poor other who needs our European/American assistance to survive.
One thing that has always kept me from volunteering is that I have a fundamental disagreement with many of the organizations out there which, in my eyes, patronize the groups of people they set out to help. The whole attitude of ‘let us show you how to do that’, ‘we know better’ attitude that I have heard so much about through my friends who volunteer. Because, the thing is, I have loads of friends who volunteered in their 20s and now that we are in our 30s, run NGOs and lead organizations around the world.
And don’t even get me started the concept of ‘voluntourism’, when those organizations out there make volunteers pay huge sums for the privilege of volunteering under the guise that the money goes to the community, but really just feeds back into the organization and lines pockets.
But those are weak excuses for someone who doesn’t want to do the research to locate and work with a legitimate, positive organization. I realize that now, after reading our very good friend Shannon’s recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. I read it from start to finish, and to be honest, the book inspired me so much that I really, almost, really, wanted to start volunteering more.
Ugh, but I still don’t put it on my plan for 2013. Why?! I have the time, the freedom but more importantly, I have face-to-face personal experience with people around the world. I am not sheltered. I travel full time and have been living abroad my entire adult life. So what is holding me back from volunteering my time to causes I have personally experienced?
One good excuse I have managed to think up is that much of volunteering takes place in rural environments (right?), and I have a pretty huge fear of insects. I seriously freak out about spiders, plus there are those urban (or should I say rural) legends about bugs taking root inside of ear canals or giving fatal bites. The thing is, no matter how irrational that all sounds, bugs love me and feed on me like a buffet – especially mosquitos, which is why I was unlucky enough to experience Dengue Fever first hand when we traveled through Belize and Guatemala in 2010 and never, ever want to experience the ‘bone crushing’ fever again.
Okay, so I here is where I admit that I am more of an intellectual, urban type. This makes me feel like a wimpy a**hole of the grandest proportions, especially because we all know that there is plenty of volunteering to be done in cities, too. There was a good part of a year I dedicated to working on a then-budding, now massively awesome project called Spirit of Football and it felt incredible to be a part of the organization which sought to bring awareness to issues of multiculturalism and integration in the former East Germany through sport, specifically, through football. That was an amazing experience for me, and one that I regretted ending my work with when I moved to England in 2006.
I also am fully aware that I can volunteer from the comfort of my own Macbook Air, even. In fact, back in 2004-2005 (from my Dell)I also did some online volunteering writing copy for NGOs. I am fully aware that I could use skills like writing, blogging and social media to help organizations now. But when Dani and I went through our 2012 annual review and plans and goals for 2013, volunteering was not on the agenda at all, again because of the excuse that I want to focus on growing our business and also self-indulgently travel the world and have an awesome life.
I could grow my business AND volunteer, but that might take away from the time we spent doing amazing photography tours, drinking coffee in stylish cafes, hiking volcanoes. I mean, in the next six months, I am going to visit Patagonia, the salt flats of Bolivia, hike Machu Picchu, and balancing that with growing a business is already too much to have on my plate.
So whatever the excuse is, can I really live with the idea that I just don’t WANT to volunteer?
I suppose that is what almost all of us do, just live with the awareness of people, animals, entire ecosystems in need and just continue on with our own agendas.
Donations are an option, but when I think about donating money, however, it makes me think of this quote I read on Facebook the other day.
(That’s right, on Facebook, where I spent extra hours every week not volunteering. Oh, smack me, will you?)
The quote said: “You can’t tell by what I am wearing, but I have excellent fashion sense. I just can’t afford the clothes.”
I feel the same way about donating. You can’t tell by my lack of action, but I have a huge heart and would love to donate. I just don’t make enough money. Which of course isn’t entirely true either. I know that if everyone donated $10 to a cause it would completely fund it. I know that.
The problem is, I really do have a big heart, and have a genuine interest in helping people. I made the decision to quit teaching in 2006 to get a Master’s Degree under the misguided assumption that I needed to ‘grow up’, ‘jump on a career path’ and be more ‘financially secure’. At the time, it wasn’t clear to me how fulfilling it was to walk in to a group of people everyday and help them accomplish their goals, and there has been a distinct hole in my life ever since. Working entirely for myself now, that specific type of rewarding feeling is gone.
Could it be argued that I enjoy helping people, as long as it is in exchange for money? How awful.
I do not regret the decision to go in another direction, because Dani and I say to each other on almost a daily basis how incredibly happy we are. But I suppose there is an increasing awareness of how little I do for others compared to how much energy I have to give.
That’s not to say that I am not fulfilled with what I am doing now. Almost every single day we receive an email from a reader who is grateful for the advice and assistance we put out there related to travel.The connection we have with our community here feels amazing, especially knowing we built GlobetrotterGirls.com from scratch. In fact, we’ve even inspired a few people to volunteer right here.
My friend Angie runs Community Connection International in the Dominican Republic and after we did a profile on CCI in 2011, one of our readers not only went down to volunteer short term, but is leading a fundraiser to return for six months and implement a much wider-reaching program there through CCI. (You can donate to Michele’s project here).
Even just playing that role of connecting those two people and the way it will affect that area of the Dominican Republic feels fulfilling to me. And yet here I am, going on about how I don’t want to volunteer. Am I just narcissistic and over-privileged, whining about my #firstworldproblems?
I am writing this today, I suppose, for two reasons. First, I don’t know exactly how I feel but I am sure that having to defend myself from the onslaught of negative comments bound to come my way will help to clarify for me how I really feel.
But also, I want to know how other people feel about this. Do you volunteer? Does it drive you crazy that people like me don’t? And if you don’t volunteer – why not? Are you willing to go on record to say what it is that keeps you from volunteering?