I am a MF volunteer
May 16, 2018

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