The dark side of voluntary work

Many correlate voluntary work with the cliché romantic idea of going to Africa or Asia to help poor children for a month; maybe taking as many photos you can possibly take and post them all over the social media with the idea of bringing social awareness of another reality present in the world we live in. Others simply take it as an adventure and there is nothing wrong with that. I am of the opinion, that if you have the opportunity to go globe trotting, go ahead! The minimum it can do is that of broadening your horizon.

Yet, hardly any one talks about the actual living conditions we are forced to live in when we are in these countries, hardly anyone admits that the work is actually pretty mundane, repetitive and boring, that the people we work with may not be grateful for the fact that we crossed the world to save them from their misery. Yet is it really possible to do this? If so, why do it in the first place? Why keep on doing it over the years? Is it just because we tend to be hooked to the feeling of doing good? Why should one work at no cost when one could easily have spent that time doing something else, relaxing or doing a paid job instead?

From personal experience, it was working with the refuse of society that I ironically became a more wholistic person. I became more socially conscious and when I started hearing the news I could start relating it to actual individuals; people with names and faces. They were now individuals I had spent time laughing and working with. Their realities no longer remained stories I had heard on tv series, films or news bulletins.

Voluntary work helped me realise that having an authoritarian role, having an attitude of knowing better than ‘them’ is not the way forward. It is more feasible to form a relationship with the most vulnerable and come up with a solution with them rather than make one for them. Voluntary work taught me that the issue of poverty is so intricate, complex and huge that the poor actually tend to be forgotten when policies are made. I learnt that it is close to impossible to solve all the issues concerned but one can at least try to help one person by doing simple actions, such as smiling despite having a rough day, but knowing that it might give courage to someone; providing a safe space for someone who has no one to talk to or simply by giving someone a lift.

In my opinion, voluntary work has three levels of commitment. One can either give from the extra one has. One can then decide to go a step further and give not just from the extra but from what is ours. The final step is to actually spend time or money for someone else rather than spend it on one’s own personal needs. This could be converted to time, money, work and many other examples. What I mean is that it is only when one allows poverty to touch your inner core and not just scrape the surface, that you are really challenged to grow and become truly human. It is only at this point that one begins to understand that the world is not made up of a group of individuals with busy schedules but rather one community where everyone has a duty to take care of one’s neighbour. It is only when we start incorporating the idea of being ‘a man for others’ at its deepest roots that we become truly human.

Photo credit: Simon Borg

Maria Vella graduated in BEd in 2011 and completed an MA in Social Justice and Education in 2012. She took part in a number of voluntary work experiences with the missionaries of charity both locally and abroad, and she currently teaches Chemistry at a boys' secondary school.

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