I have been doing volunteering jobs for a while and had the opportunity to see charity work from different angles. A few years ago, I have been travelling around the world and volunteering for various charities. Now, I became the founder of my own. This incredible experience helped me realize what is right and that there is something totally confusing in it. I would like to share my ups and downs and my thoughts on this phenomenal line of work.
I can do whatever I want. I am a volunteer
Let me introduce myself: I grew up in Russia, got my medical degree and spent my residency at a state hospital; then I got another degree in tropical medicine at a Belgian university and off I went to Guatemala to volunteer the hell out of my skills.
Till then, I hadn’t had a clue what volunteering is; nobody taught me even the basics.
While preparing for my first mission at a small Guatemalan village, I was e-mailing with the project managers a lot, trying to get myself more benefits. I was offered travel expenses reimbursement, medical insurance, meals and accommodation. I was also asked to bring medical supplies, but I declared proudly that I am coming for a year and I need personal belongings, so sorry not sorry. I was seeing myself as a hero: I am a MF physician, and I am coming to work for free!
I couldn’t even imagine where the money came from; that the main source of income are donations from private sponsors. Every time I asked for more, there was less left for medical supplies and medicines.
I discovered this simple thing only when we started our project. Every time I want to say, “Why wouldn’t you understand!” to an ambitious volunteer, I stop myself, remembering me four years ago.
Volunteers are not saints
Be honest with yourself: you are a selfish person. The whole meaning of the word ‘volunteer’ gives you a hint. And there’s nothing wrong with it. You are doing it for your own pleasure: to put an attractive bullet point on your resume, to post a pic on Instagram, to feel yourself a hero. I bet you are bursting with pride inside, awarding yourself with, “What a good girl/boy you are!” and shooting angry looks at your friends, whose satisfaction is to have a highly-paid job, have a second baby or buy an IPhone X. Even if you can’t admit it, deep down inside, you know that all of this will positively affect your karma and you’ll get lucky anyway. Plus, volunteers are, normally, people from all over the world, having made something of themselves already, owning businesses and incredible life experience. Networking with these people is invaluable.
At the same time, you are free to say you are working hard enough for free and you don’t owe anything to anybody. Nobody can tell you when to get up; nobody can force you to take turns tidying. You do whatever you want, you leave whenever you want; if you don’t feel like coming back, so be it. They are not paying you to demand anything.
This was my idea of how it all worked and I kept thinking like this even when I started hiring volunteers myself. I fostered them only because they were there, having taken a big decision to come and work for us for free.
But, all of sudden, I realized: why on earth can’t I demand anything from them? They are getting various benefits, non-material, but benefits. They have no right to say ‘no’ to me and whine about being a volunteer and taking a break whenever they want. Wanna be called a hero - please help yourself with good old responsibilities. Otherwise, this isn’t fair: volunteer gets everything, doing nothing, and charity gets nothing, doing a lot.
We are held responsible for what we do
There are two types of volunteers: professionals (trained specialists) and trainees (students). Professionals are not required to pay the program fee; on the other hand, students – are. There is a simple explanation for that.
We are responsible for our patients. Even experienced doctors sometimes ask for a second opinion, let alone students, who are just starting their careers in such a demanding field. They are not able to provide medical services without assistance: they need to be mentored and guided. Mentorship is a time and energy-consuming work. Students are paying the fee, but, in return, they get a wonderful and invaluable experience: treating patients, receiving letters of recommendation from an international charity organization, obtaining an opportunity to study abroad - no money can buy these life skills and horizons.
Life after a mission
Your internship has been completed. Maybe, the project has come to its end, or your contract has expired. Emptiness crawls back inside.
Of course, it depends. Depends on how serious you were about the project, if you believed you were changing the world. The scariest part is when you believed. Did you?
I started seeing everything around differently. All those things I cared about before lost their value: work, money, people who don’t share the same views. I was heavily depressed and all I wanted was to return back. But there was nothing to return back to: the clinic I worked for closed its doors because of an armed conflict in the region. My other contracts had expired, besides, there were other candidates to fill the vacancies in. I was left alone with my inability to return back to normal life.
Many our volunteers are trapped inside the same dilemma. They are e-mailing us in one, two or six months, saying that they miss us and they are dreaming of coming back. They are depressed, living in dusty Moscow/grey St.Petes and working at an office. Our architects are looking forward to the construction of our next clinic. Our doctors are looking forward to their upcoming vacation - to work at our clinic. Our clinic. This is a very strange - maybe even silly - feeling when you are high on the realization that you are not wasting your life.
Many would be over this feeling soon. They would fight it like a disease. But some wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
By Viktoria Valikova