My name is William and two years ago I discovered, for my surprise, a way of traveling that was even more rewarding than anything I had experienced before. Since then, I take advantage of any excuse to contribute (my grain of sand) to society while discovering new cultures. Yes, I am a volunteer. And I say so, because I consider that volunteering may seem like an experience, but it becomes a lifestyle. It’s like they say with tattoos, once you start, you get addicted. In my case, I had never considered volunteering. I had always believed that volunteers did an amazing job, but I thought that it just wasn’t for me. There were too many things I wanted to do in my younger years and I could always collaborate at a later stage of life by donating money to NGOs.
However, since I have always been very intrepid and I was not happy following the life patterns that everybody follows, my friends encouraged me to take a gap year and travel to some exotic place to work for a few months and live in a different society with a different culture. I decided to travel to South Africa for its amazing and famous beaches and a much more pleasant weather than what we have in autumn in Belfast. Also, as they speak English I would not have any problem communicating. When I arrived to Cape Town I wandered around all the bars to see if someone would hire me, but due to my tourist visa I was not allowed to work in there. I was in paradise, I couldn’t go home! At least, not so soon, but I also didn’t want to feel like my «gap year» was a vacation. I wanted to feel useful. More than just a trip, I needed to live an experience to remember the rest of my life. And, thanks to volunteering, that’s how it was.
By chance I met Bash, my volunteer mentor. She taught me the importance of helping society with our time. Bash was the owner of a nursery for orphaned children. Due to South Africa’s old apartaheid system, the country still suffers nowadays from great inequality and unfortunately, the racial division is still very present in the mentality of many South Africans. To the social division is added the fact that the most impoverished South African social classes suffered a great public health issue with one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. This, along with the widespread use of drugs, have left millions of children orphaned, many of them ill with HIV and other health problems. These children have fewer opportunities in life than other children. Bash invited me to volunteer at her orphanage. I helped children to improve their English, both speaking and writing, but my main task was to play with them. These children have nothing, but what they need the most is love. Bash never asked people who wanted to help her out with the orphanage for money, she would always ask them to come to spend some time with the children.
I discovered that volunteering is the easiest and most fun thing in the world. I would have never said that I would love to be with children so much. They were very grateful and appreciated us a lot. I realized that the fewer belongings they had, the more they valued the volunteers who were going to spend time with them. I organized a small children’s soccer league with the little ones and we used to play every Saturday. In addition, Louis, another volunteer, organized dance classes for orphans and other children in the village after their classes. It was a program to keep children busy after school so they would not be out on the streets alone, as the streets could be dangerous for them at that early age, and also for our orphans to socialize with other children. His students were real acrobats! They were able to jump and make mortals above me sitting on the ground. I remember the first time that one of the children, Kyle, asked me to sit down for a demonstration. Louis had gone to prepare some food and I wasn’t sure if it would turn out well, but Kyle was much more agile than I could have imagined and he had everything under control.
After a few months, I learned their lingo and customs, very different from those we have in Northern Ireland. And there was still time to discover the incredible landscapes of Cape Town! We all hiked together to Table Mountain, a mountain in the middle of the city, and watched the sunset from there. Without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Also, I learnt about the problem of water scarcity in South Africa and now I have a much greater awareness on this issue.
Since then, I have not stopped registering whenever I can for international volunteering experiences. Each experience is unique and rewarding: training children in soccer in Colombia, repairing schools and sports centers in Cambodia, teaching English in Costa Rica, helping women’s groups in Thailand … And, at the end of the day, going to sleep feeling that, apart from enjoying, I am contributing my little bit to improve people’s lives. This whole experience made me realize that my time was the most valuable thing that I could contribute with, and spending it volunteering makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world.