On volunteering close to home
After a long time wanting to volunteer somewhere, but not really searching around, I got a phone call.
I met a girl this summer, and she knew a couple of people who were starting a volunteering program close to the place I live. Somehow she thought of me, gave me a phone call, and strangely enough, I immediately said yes.
I usually would not. I usually need to think about every thing I do, and it is rare to simply say “sure, why not?” before a good, long few hours – and even after a few, good, long hours saying yes, (or no) is me being rushed and intuitive.
The funny part was, I also met his girl because of, against all odds, agreeing to go up north with a friend, and attend a kind of university summer camp – something that usually is not my type, and something I was far too quick to say yes to.
But back to volunteering.
This was a completely new project.
There is a neighborhood in the closest city to my place, Setubal, the third largest in the country, called Bela Vista. This is a neighborhood associated with crime, violence, drugs and poverty.
Our work there was essentially to “play” with the kids there.
Being very familiar with Setubal, I knew that there was some truth to this, but that in general, it was a little bit exaggerated.
So what exactly had I gotten myself into? What exactly would I be doing? And how exactly would that be helpful to any of those kids?
And I did not know anyone. Not even that one girl was going to be there – even though she was just an acquaintance it would be good to at least know a familiar face. And usually, in this type of thing, everyone knows each other.
Convinced I would be the outsider, and that we were not really doing anything really helpful, I unwillingly dragged myself to that first weekend.
And I am so thankful I did.
The work we do is very simple, but somehow I feel it is one of the most important things I have ever done.
And the group is absolutely fantastic. No one knew each other, and we are all very different. We all have something to bring to the table, and the funny part is, everyone randomly ended up there. All of us landed in the same group, and somehow instantly connected. I think the reason was, there were no social intentions behind being there – we all joined together with the genuine intention of helping someone. We all came to this unknown group, to this unknown project with the heart in the right place.
Still a little bit apprehensive on the actual reason we all gathered there, we set out to find out exactly what we would be doing. This was a completely new group, and no one was really sure on how things would work out.
The basic thing of “playing” with this underprivileged kids did not resonate with me. I simply did not get how this would be in any way helpful. But I was there to see what would happen.
The first weekend was almost a test. We were all a little bit confused, we did not know any of the kids, and most of us were not used to doing this type of thing. But the kids were great. And at the end of the day I knew what we were doing there mattered.
Only now I am starting to be able to put into word the importance of what we are doing there.
The thing is, even if it is not that bad, this neighborhood is, in fact, complicated. The education here is not the best, the hygiene level is low, the rule is to be “smart”, to survive here, the definition of clever is to lie and cheat, to steal and be tough. The racism in a such diverse neighborhood does not cease to amaze me. The do not mix together and are extreemely mean to the other races/cultures.
This kids parents are not loving, are not caring. They usually have to look after themselves, and also their siblings.
After a couple of weekends I still get sad with their reactions upon receiving a compliment. They are very clearly not used to any type of positive feedback.
I don’t like to generalise, but I must to explain what I mean. Obviously not every single parent living in this place mistreat his kids, but the big majority does. I don’t know what happens behind close doors, but the feeling I get is essentially of neglection. They have no attention whatsoever, they are not used to loving parents.
Every weekend we have a theme, where we try to introduce some type of value like sharing, respecting other cultures, team spirit, honesty… And no matter how insignificant it may seem, it seems to me they slowly are understanding them.
The truth is, they all are great kids. Good kids. They were just not lucky enough to grow up with a stable loving family.
If only in three-months we get to see some changes in some basic attitudes, I can only imagine in a few more years.
Last weekend, a group that was there twenty year ago came to visit.
Next week I will write about what we are hoping to achieve, on what this group was able to do, and my thoughts on volunteering.