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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2007
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Volunteer Abroad
Volunteer in China

Attitude Makes all the Difference

Lessons From a Habitat for Humanity Volunteer in China

The bus full of dirty, exhausted volunteers pulls into the train station in Nanning, China after a weekend of building houses with Habitat for Humanity for 10 elderly residents of a dilapidated and poor Leprosy Rehabilitation Village in Guangxi Province.

“Everybody did a great job this weekend. I’m sure we were the best volunteers Habitat has ever had!” says the burly Canadian man leading the group. “And boy is this going to change the lives of those people.” The busload of bedraggled volunteers silently nod their heads in agreement, too tired to respond.

As the group of mostly expatriates heads for the nearest double arches, I am left wondering why this group seems so unaffected by their once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Chinese countryside. Praise for doing a good deed aside, they lacked the cooperation, respect, and compassion that I had seen from a group of similar Habitat volunteers two weeks earlier, showing that the attitudes of the volunteers makes all the difference in shaping a volunteer experience.

At first both groups had worked enthusiastically, eager to see results. The pace had been slow though, leading to incredulous cries of “That’s it? That’s all we did?” by the end of the first day. How they reacted to the snail-like pace proved to be the difference between them. The first group kept working despite the physical strain because they cooperated with each other to make the job more efficient. Decked out in matching Habitat T-shirts, they organized themselves into groups of five to seven, building a wall factory-style. They enlivened the monotonous work by singing along as a battery- powered iPod and speakers played everything from 50 Cent to Bob Dylan. Their positive energy was infectious as they plugged away at the never-ending heaps of earth.

The second group, anxious to start working, skipped organizing themselves and immediately scattered about to vigorously hack at the hard ground. By lunch on the first day they were complaining about working so hard with the heavy tools that they could not lift their chopsticks. One young woman threw up from exhaustion and spent the rest of the day under the shade of the tree she had been furiously digging up. Bored by the repetitive work, they found excuses to take long rests. Their shovels became shoulder rests as they talked amongst themselves.

Some question the benefits of service work, especially in China where a monetary donation could pay for abundant skilled, cheap labor to do the job. Others disagree. “Interaction is really important,” says a volunteer from the first group who has been involved with Habitat for 20 years. “You’ll get just as much out of this as the villagers by being here to see how it helped change their lives. It can change your life too.”

Come Prepared

The first group of volunteers embraced the chance for a deeper connection with the people they were helping. Before coming, they studied the history of leprosy in China and requested time to speak to the villagers on arrival. At lunchtime, they voluntarily shared their food and awkwardly made conversation with the villagers. At the end of the weekend they put on a farewell show and presented gifts to their new friends. They left promising to send photos they had taken and made plans to return to complete other parts of the project.

The second group did not seek information beyond prearranged sessions set up by Habitat staff. At lunchtime they huddled together in a circle devouring their food, unmindful of the others sitting just across the courtyard.

For the villagers, the rare opportunity for them to tell their stories was therapeutic, and the hugs and handshakes were reassuring of their human dignity. More than one of the villagers cried when describing lives characterized by discrimination and loneliness. They relished their time with the volunteers because they also desired to know a reality unlike their own.

As the burly Canadian says, volunteers should feel good about their contributions, for which the recipients will most likely be brimming with thanks. There is an opportunity to go further than this though, to befriend and understand the people with whom one is working by serving in a respectful, cooperative way and engaging in dialogues. If, through volunteering, one seeks to bridge the cultural gap created by social and economic disparity, an extra effort to connect and understand on a personal level will give meaning to the rhetoric of the good global citizen.

For More Info

If you would like to learn more about volunteering, there are many resources available. Here are a few that have been recommended by experts on socially conscious education and service learning:

 Where's the Learning in Service Learning? by Janet Eyler, Dwight E. Giles Jr. and Dwight E. Giles ($36), has been called “the single most important book concerning service learning.” This book presents information for teaching servicelearning based on extensive data from research projects, surveys focused on volunteers’ attitudes and perceptions of learning, and interviews with volunteers conducted before and after volunteer trips.

 On a more practical level, there is The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum and Social Action by Cathryn Berger Kay ($29.95). It is considered “a rich resource” for those creating or overseeing service-learning programs.

A research paper that exclusively focuses on international service learning is Richard C. Kiely’s “A Chameleon with a Complex: Searching for Transformation in International Service-Learning,” published in March 2004 in the Michigan Journal of Community Service by the Regents of the Univ. of Michigan. The article was reproduced with permission from the publisher at www.glenninstitute.org/glenn/scholars_content/paper25.pdf. This paper explores volunteers’ changing worldviews as a result of participating in servicelearning and the struggle to “translate critical awareness into meaningful action.” The findings are based on a case study of a student service-learning program in Nicaragua over a 10-year period.

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