Jul 29, 2015

Volunteering Abroad: a good choice?

My purpose for volunteering abroad this summer was none other than to teach. I wasn't interested in travelling this summer, or in meeting new people, or doing new things. I just wanted to teach, to help the poor through education.

Shortly before I left Singapore, I was walking to Derrick's place at night and I passed by a girl who looked slightly younger than me, but taller. She was wearing an oversized collared shirt, unbuttoned to reveal her bra, and extremely short shorts. She was learning against the wall, looking down, her hair covering her face. She might have been drunk, or stoned, or just...really, really broken. I sensed that there was something really wrong...she was at a dangerous point. She seemed to be in an emotionally vulnerable and volatile state, and I felt like it would be foolish and unnecessary for me to go up to her. She might scream, or strike...it wasn't the right time. She was with a guy in a red tee who was standing a little further off, speaking in low and concerned tones on his phone. I could tell he was taking care of her. I walked past them, wishing I could do something, but knowing that she was in her friend's hands. And that's how it works. Upper middle class girl who leads a comfortable life and went to good schools, she will never understand; she will always be separated from the girl who's barely dressed and standing at the void deck looking like her entire being is on the verge of falling apart. After walking a little further, I saw a van arrive at the garbage chute area, and another guy in a red tee running out with a sense of gentle urgency, alarmed concern. My heart yearned to do something, anything...all I could do was walk on.

Thinking about it over the next few days, it finally hit me: why am I going overseas to volunteer with an organisation, when there are people right in my neighbourhood who need help?

And then I got on a plane.

I've been here for three and a half weeks but my heart has been very much at home. I wasn't ready to leave. All I wanted to do here was teach, but I haven't been able to teach very much at all. A few hours a week at most, plus the English-Indonesian barrier. At the same time, I am looking forward to seeing my Crest mentee Syafiah again when I'm back in Singapore, and dearest Cecilia whom I used to tutor at the Salvation Army but who has become a very dear friend. I'm also looking forward to starting a one-on-one youth tutoring program between Yale-NUS and the Clementi residential community. Stacey also sent me the link to her church's Geylang outreach called Tamar Village, something I've been meaning to explore for a year now. I'm also planning to go back to Tuition Ministry at City Harvest if I decide to stay with this church. It's a ministry I was involved in in 2013, where I gave English supplementary lessons to ex-dropout students who were doing their O Levels. It was an extremely fulfilling time, and I hope that I blessed them as much as they blessed me.

And all this isn't even the main ministry I am called to. I know that for as long as I'm a student at Yale-NUS, my main calling is to the people here. To share my life with the Christians here, to encourage them and let them encourage me; and to be God's vessel of light and love to everyone. Of course I've failed many many times. Failed to be God's vessel of love, failed to draw strength from God, failed to bring people closer to God at times. But I know that these are the people God has called me to pour my life and love out to for these few years, and this is where I am rooted, grounded.

My reason for being with International Humanity Foundation this year was just to teach the poor. I honestly didn't need the travelling or seeing new places or whatever. And that might not have been a good enough reason. Volunteering abroad is often for those who want to travel, and do something good while at it. If your purpose is solely to do something good...you might as well do it back home. I asked a few of the volunteers here why they were doing this, and it was mostly about the travelling. I asked a Kenyan why she wasn't volunteering at the Kenyan center, but would come all the way to Asia. She said, well, if she did it in Kenya it would just be like going back home, not so interesting.

A lot of my time here has been spent thinking about the inefficiency of manpower allocation. As an organisation, you're asking people from all over the world to come here, stay at a center 7 days a week, simply to teach a few hours of class? I would feel guilty, man. I would feel guilty about using their time inefficiently. They could be back in their home country, helping out at local NGOs while also earning money through a day job, or doing something else more worth their time, but they're staying here just to teach after-school lessons, which a local volunteer could easily do. (Of course, we're supposed to do 4 hours of at-center and 4 hours of admin work a day, but the admin is basically advertising for more people to come. And you will not teach 3 hours a day. Maybe teach 3 hours a week, and make up for the rest of the hours by playing with the kids and cleaning up the center.)

But yeah, I realised that that isn't necessarily the point of an international NGO like this.

Of course, I might be wrong. Take Carissa for example, who's currently volunteering with World Vision in Sri Lanka, and who spent last summer volunteering with Rachel House in Jakarta, a palliative care center for children with terminal illnesses. I haven't asked her why she's doing what she's doing, but I know it isn't about the travelling. I think it might be to be immersed in, and bless a community of, people of a level of poverty you just wouldn't see in Singapore. But also those places are children's homes, places that the kids stay in, so the volunteers actually need to stay there and take care of things round the clock. But Carissa also volunteers with children's care centers in Singapore during the school term. And that's important. Helping people shouldn't be something we only do when we've officially signed up for something abroad. The most obnoxious thing would be to go "Oh yeah, I volunteered at an elderly care center in Taiwan last summer" and disregard the elderly in need of care right at home. It's all about the state of mind, and your purpose.

I guess it would also be largely about knowing what poverty, or neediness, looks like in a different part of the world. Getting to know that culture, and bringing back lessons to your own country. If you "just want to help people" - you can do that back home.

Anyway, all my thoughts are kind of swirly and unsorted right now, I hope this post made some sense, and gave those who are intending to volunteer abroad some food for thought.


michael ho said...

I think you've totally got it right down pat! Totally agree with the thoughts, except that there are certainly lots of merits in overseas volunteerism too. After an intense 2-week Overseas Service-Learning with my students, when we summarise all the good that has come out of their service to the
community or orphanage there, we pose this idea to the students through a series of
questions... Now that they have experienced service through the OSL, they are convinced of the importance of the human factor when providing the service...and they can provide this human factor back home in SGP too, because there are also orphanages, homes for the elderly, associations for the handicapped, etc... And we introduce the list of organisations they can go to to volunteer, when they feel appropriate, at the various stages of their lives. But yet, though it doesn't matter where in the world we extend help to, say, a child, try saying it to THAT child ... For a child or community that has been helped or befriended by foreign strangers (at first), it is an experience of and connection with the bigger world out there through the foreigner's interactions. The understanding and acceptance of a basic differences or similarities in race, culture, maybe religion , etc. The idea of hope because they don't feel rejected in their corner of the world within their country, but instead, have friends who come from the world over who make a little difference to their perspectives of life. But an important fact, perhaps, is the hyphen hidden within the term Service-Learning...that equal to the amount of service that has been performed, is hopefully the amount of self-learning and self-discovery of the student. An overseas volunteer programme is a good start for some who eventually feel what you now feel...also good for a breather to learn fresh perspectives from a different culture, etc. And it adds to one's lifetime experiences, and connection with a community and another country.

Hannah Karen Ho said...

Mmm definitely, and it's a great place to start with young teens for the reasons you stated, to open their eyes and hearts to the reality of things. I guess my main learning point was that efficiency in allocating manpower, making 'good' use of the volunteers' time, isn't necessarily the most important thing for organisation. Yeah so a lot about it for the volunteer is about the "otherness" - getting to know a foreign culture, immersing oneself in a different community. So that experience of a new culture must be a big motivating factor for the volunteer too, more than just "helping someone, anyone".