Today’s news networks continue to feature information and debates about the large caravan of migrants slowly making their way to the U.S. border from the South (primarily from Honduras). Reasons for their plight include the continued risk of life-long poverty, corruption, and gang violence in their native land. While this topic might be uncomfortable to talk about, and at first glance does not seem to be related to the subject of traveling to volunteer, I believe there are 3 nuggets of truth traveling volunteers should think about that relate to this news event.
Contrary to popular belief, Americans (traveling or at home) are not the only volunteers helping their fellow earth-dwellers. Volunteer nurses and doctors in Mexico, for example, have been selflessly exhausting their time and resources to assist families and individuals facing health crisis’ due to marching towards the USA. But. Hey (you might be thinking)! I’ve travelled to volunteer in Mexico to assist Mexican communities X, Y, and Z before. How is it they have resources, time, and energy to give to others when they need help themselves? After all, we took suitcases full of clothes, medical supplies and books to support them. While there might be all sorts of reasons why there are supplies and medical personnel available, the simple answer might be because these are generous-spirited Mexicans who have a volunteer’s heart!
Noted by last week’s guest blogger Nathanael Olsen, a GREAT volunteer has passion and enthusiasm, is good at communicating and interacting with others, and very flexible in terms of getting a job done. We can say inside a GREAT volunteer beats a volunteer’s heart! Medical volunteers in PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico, possibly needing outside assistance for their own families yet readily available to medically assist with migrant’s needs, are volunteering because of their passion to serve others, ability to interact with people regardless of who they are, and the flexibility to get a humanitarian crisis job addressed. You who travel to volunteer most likely already have a volunteer’s heart and this will contribute to a powerful transformative experience for you, the community you will serve in and the one you call home.
Who has had a bad case of assumptions? All (honest) hands go up! I know I have. I’ve assumed someone was talking negatively about me behind my back, I’ve assumed I knew what parenting was like before I had children, and sigh, I assumed the Arizona Cardinals (for those who don’t know, this is Phoenix’s football team) could not possibly play any worse now than they did last season. Well, I’ve used too much energy assuming and quite frankly have been very wrong multiple times. The problem with assumptions is you make generalisations about things or people that may not true because they are not based on actual facts. Referring back to the example of migrants from Honduras making their way to the USA. I can assume I understand why people would risk their lives to trek 1000 miles to a border that may not receive. I can assume I understand what a community is like because I researched them prior to traveling to volunteer. But us traveling volunteers cannot assume anymore. We must remember the danger of assumptions are closely related to a form of stereotyping – forming an “us” vs. “them” situation – which does not breath room for relationship-building and the pursuit of fact-finding to create an overall positive sense of wellbeing and social health.
Prior to going on any traveling to volunteer experience, there are safety considerations to mull over. Is it an area known for pickpocketing? Malaria? Venomous snakes that slither in the night? Do I have to think about “Plan B” if my volunteering experience becomes unsafe? Who will I turn to if representatives of my volunteer sending organisation is halfway across the world? This news story series got me thinking about are the scores of traveling volunteers who go to countries, such as Honduras, where many citizens of these countries want to leave because of safety concerns or violence. However, if these areas are so violent, why are volunteers traveling to neighbourhoods and border towns that might put them in harm’s way? Of course most wise (you would hope!) volunteer sending organisations will not be creating itineraries in areas deemed unsafe. As an alternative, maybe we should be thinking about the communities and countries that are facing difficult situations and consider another way to support these people groups without physically traveling there. Something to think about.