Volunteering: how to build the kind of future you want to see

Today is International Volunteers Day, apparently. There’s a day or a week or a month for everything, it seems, but volunteering is a good thing to stop and think about now and again. Volunteering – donating our knowledge, labour or skills for free – is a powerful way of creating the kind of future we’d like to see.

I’m volunteering on a big scale, spending a year working to help to develop skills and capacity in the team that tried to balance the social and economic needs for development with the protection of Peru’s network of incredible national parks and reserves. It’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing, to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture, using my skills to help accomplish things that I’m passionate about. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, to have found myself at a place in life where I could just pack up and go, to be able to afford to spend an entire year away without a real income. How fortunate I am to have the chance to try to change things (and how bizarre it feels to find myself the ‘expert’ in anything).

You don’t have to do something as big and crazy as I’m doing to change things though. In fact it’s often the local, community efforts that make the biggest impacts and really change the way we live. Volunteering at home, as much as abroad, gives us the ability to touch other people’s lives and contribute towards the world we want to live in. When if comes to building a sustainable, communal, joyful future, volunteering our time and effort is one of the the most powerful things we can do.

Through voluntary efforts we can fill gaps in public services, ameliorating the worst impacts of inevitable shortfalls in government funding and capacity. Through volunteering we can take actions to support our beliefs and keep things moving in the direction we value, even when the government may have different ideas. Volunteers bring our communities together and help us become more in collective than we are on our own.

On a personal level, volunteering can be very rewarding. It allows us a chance to put our values into action, to connect with others who share a vision, to feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to our community or to the planet. It lets us build new skills and try out our ideas outside of a traditional work environment. It provides opportunities to test new ways of working and thinking and to experiment a little. Altruistic collective action can be a powerful antidote to the individualistic consumption our culture promotes. Research suggests that getting our volunteerism on makes us happier, more socially-connected people who live longer lives.

It seems that in giving for nothing we actually receive. Certainly my year here in Lima will teach me much more than what I’ll leave behind. My life will be forever changed and new doors opened in exchange for some guidelines and improved protocols (it hardly seems fair, really…).

If you’re interested in the whole overseas volunteering thing there’s heap of different programs, from unskilled pay-to-go roles through to the kind of professional placement I’m in.  You can give your time for a few days or weeks as part of broader travel, like I did with my orphanage garden work last trip, or you can make the project the whole point of the trip, as I’m doing now.

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Teaching food growing skills to my beautiful girls in Cusco.

Closer to home there’s all sorts of ways you can get involved in building a better future. There’s fantastic community-based environmental programs like Landcare and Waterwatch (and their equivalents outside of Aus) that support volunteers to make real environmental changes. There are groups like Extra Hands that coordinate tree planting or clean-up days. If people are more your thing there are programs that help others get outdoors and learn about the environment, like WildCare’s migrant outreach program, or you can help out in a local school or museum or community garden.

If you’re better with animals than people and have the time to spare, it’s rather rewarding to be wildlife carer (though your sleep may suffer with wee ones I suspect the cuteness makes up for it). Less demanding but still rewarding is helping out at an animal shelter (as an ex RSPCA dog-walker I can confirm that payment in puppy cuddles is all kinds of awesome).

If you’ve got great business skills these too can be donated. Committees of community and volunteer organisations will always welcome a savvy treasurer or well-networked publicity officer. Musicians can donate performance time to raise funds for things they believe in, or raise the moral of others engaged in hard slog. Domestic gods and goddesses can bake and cook things to sell for profit or feed those in need (like many of us in Hobart did to feed the fire-fighters at the start of the year). Gardeners can donate surplus produce where it’s needed.

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Taiko Drum donated their passion and rhythms to raise money for bushfire relief (photo taken by me, using my friend Eric’s very shiny camera. Click to check out his photography.)

There’s plenty of unofficial volunteering too: simple things like helping out our friends and neighbours, sharing equipment, time or skills. Checking in on elderly friends, walking the neighbour’s dogs, mowing someone’s lawn (thank you Marcus for the many times you did this for me). For me there was the connections made the season I volunteered to help coach and manage a girl’s soccer team, and the friends made over a hot BBQ when I helped out friends run a stall at the Sustainable Living Festival as well as all the little things that tied my neighbourhood together. These simple acts help to connect us with each other and build a real sense of community. It’s a way to shape and change the place you live in and get to know others who value the same things.

You don’t have to be in a privileged position like me to get out there and make a difference. Use the opportunities you have to make a difference in your own backyard, in the community to make your home in, where you get to enjoy all the associated benefits, both of contributing to something you believe in and receiving the benefits of positive change in your neighbourhood.

And of course if you are thinking about the whole overseas volunteering thing, why not see what sorts of programs can use your skills? Within Aus there’s AYAD, AVI, AVID, ABV and the Red Cross, all involved in established aid and development programs, and internationally there’s groups like Doctors and Engineers Without Borders as well as a heap of great NGO programs in pretty much every place imaginable (like the CREES scientific volunteer program here in the Peruvian Amazon). Of course there are some dodgy “volunteer tourism” organisations too, so do your homework and take the time to see if there’s something that feels right for you.

It’s International Volunteer Day, which seems to me as good a day as any to think about how each of us can help create the kind of world we want to live in. And if that just happens to include a year in Peru, well really who could complain?

Peru 2.0

Volunteering has some unexpected benefits that are truly good for the soul.

4 Comments on “Volunteering: how to build the kind of future you want to see

  1. I’ve been thinking of doing something when I get home… even if it’s just taking a bag for rubbish whenever I head down to the local creek. Or maybe meals on wheels or doing something with the local council. There are so many opportunities! Even just making sure friends are being looked after when they’re sick or tired or injured is a satisfying thing to do.
    I don’t think you’re ‘lucky’ – you worked hard for everything you’ve done and took big risks by going. Luck doesn’t come into it:).

    • Thanks for the comment and I’m interested to see what you do get up to when you get home. Do you think your travels have influenced your thinking about social / environmental issues at all? I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts (and Luke’s too) on the topic.

      and I’m not so much lucky lucky as priveleged. To be in a position where I can afford to not work for a year is a big deal and something many people will never be able to do. If you have kids, or take care of your parents, or have debts to service, or land to tend, then something like what you and I are doing is totally off the agenda. And that’s just in the first world. The vast majority of people will never be in an economic position to do this.

      So yeah, I’m lucky in that I have the social and economic privelege of being from a wealthy country, plus the “luck” of my circumstances, plus the hard work I put in. Withouth the first two, however, all the hard work in the world could not have brought me here. 🙂

  2. Really nice post Toni. I trust you are having fun 🙂 keep up the good work. Ps love the last photo, it must be wonderful putting smiles on these children’s faces! Heart warming stuff 🙂

    • Hi there! Yeah, I’m enjoying myself though I admit big city living is taking some getting used to!

      That goregous last photo is from my last visit, when I spent a month in Cusco studying Spanish and volunteering in a Girl’s Home to teach basic food cultivation skills. The smiles and hugs made every frustration worthwhile and the sense of reward I experienced motivated me to look into the long-term technical volunteering I’m doing now. I’ve got to say though, while working with fellow enviro scientists in an office environment is great, it doesn’t really compare on the hugs and smiles front. 🙂

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