The Essence of Volunteering
The power situation has been especially challenging this week as two days in a row we experienced intense storms. They reminded me of some of the worse tropical storms I have seen- incredibly strong wind, constant thunder and lightning, driving rain and hail. Shamser commented that it is some of the worse weather they have had in years. The first storm developed fast and took us by surprise. The people walking the children home in the afternoon were caught in it and we were very worried about them being out without proper gear and a flashlight. Night had fallen fast, there was thunder and lightning rolling through the valley. Then came the hail. At that point, the time had long since passed when they should have been back and we did not know where they were. Because of the storm it was not possible to call someone in the village to find out some information. Eventually they made it back, about 90 minutes late, soaked to the bone, with leeches riding along, but safe. We were all relieved and got some salt out to rid them of the leeches.
Fast forward to the next day. As the afternoon wore on, the storm clouds built. It was clear that the walk to the village at the end of the school day was going to be a repeat of the previous day. Gary, the guy from England, and I had not been busy much of the day because without power, work in the computer lab was impossible, so we volunteered to walk the children home. Neither one of us was thrilled about it but it had to be done and it was our turn to contribute for the day. Right from the outset I accepted the fact that I was going to get wet, it was going to be miserable and leeches might be involved. It was rather freeing because by accepting the inevitability of all of that, I could approach the whole experience with a positive attitude – it was going to be an adventure for sure. I did not have to spend any energy worrying about what was going to happen. Gary was of a similar mindset so we set off with good spirits
As we walked along, the children were really funny. They were completely unconcerned about the coming weather and walked slowly, playing with sticks and rocks and whatever crossed their path. They had no sense of urgency to try and get home before getting rained on. As we walked along, of course, it eventually started to rain. The children had rain coats in their backpacks so we stopped to help them don the coats. Unfortunately this only slowed them down further as they then started playing with the snaps and zippers. Fortunately at that point though the rain had started it was not heavy. The wind was starting to pick up, however, signaling that worse was to come. The respite from the full brunt of the storm did not last long.
We were twenty minutes away from the village when it really started to pour and of course, that was the moment that the children decided to hurry, running down the now slippery path. Where earlier, Gary and I had been pushing them along, now we trailed them racing along the path while watching our footing carefully. Luckily after about ten minutes we met on the trail some of the older children from the village who had been sent to meet us part way. After handing over the children’s backpacks and lunch bags, Gary and I turned around and started quickly back the way we came.
The path had long since turned to mud and becoming saturated, a small flow of water ran straight down the middle. The three streams which we had to traverse had started to swell and in my imagination legions of leeches were lurking in wait of our passing footwear. Once again I was delighted to have boots on as they offered a layer of protection – I did not get any leeches the whole time. As we continued through the torrential downpour thankfully thunder and lightning were absent. However about half way back to Shamser’s house pea size hail started to fall. Gary deployed the umbrella we had brought with us, angling it to protect our heads from being hit by the falling ice.
We were moving quickly but carefully. When we finally reached the dirt road that signaled only a third of our journey left, we were able to pick up the pace. The road also was rife with wide and deep channels of running water and that is the point where my boots saturated. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later so I just mentally sighed and kept moving. As we hustled along Gary and I were having a conversation. It was funny because it was punctuated with “ouch” and “ow” as the hail hit exposed body parts. It really was painful because the size of the hail had grown three times! The umbrella was a life saver. We finally made it back to the house fairly wet, but safe. The storm blew the whole night and it was so strong that it took out many power lines, roofs, and crops. The power stayed out for nearly three days as the damage was so widespread and hard to fix.
I share that story because as I reflect on the essence of this volunteer experience, besides having the opportunity to help someone, it is about learning more about yourself and providing an opportunity to grow and test yourself as a person. When I talk to my fellow volunteers, no matter their age, place of origin or background, I find they are motivated by the same themes- helping and broadening. It is challenging to put yourself into a different culture, a completely new situation out of your comfort zone and learn how to adapt, while at the same time function as an effective team member. You have to be open and accepting to new experiences, differences of opinions while at the same time demonstrating patience and empathy. The effectiveness of the community that forms is highly dependent on everyone displaying these attributes.
Observing all of that, in many ways this little project in a small village in the Himalayas reminds me of the International Space Station (ISS) program. A mix of people from various countries, backgrounds, experience levels, ages and motivations show up at Shamser’s house as volunteers, responding to his appeal for help in executing his vision of free, quality education for the poor. All come committed to that goal. Despite the diversity, we all learn how to work and live together in the context of the Nepali culture, with the added dynamics of people constantly leaving and new people constantly arriving. I have been here for two weeks and have not seen any major conflicts or disrespect, but instead everyone pitching in to help wherever they can. The environment that is established here is that of a community committed to one goal – the success of the school. The ISS program, with its multiple countries, agendas, languages and cultures, is so successful for exactly the same reason- it is a community of people, world wide, committed to the one goal- expanding human presence into space in the context of ensuring that the space station is a success. With these two examples, one on a micro scale and one on a macro scale, think what we could do as humans, working together across the globe, if we could harness and channel the same kind of energy and commitment to solving some of our more pressing problems. We only have to get out of our own way!