10 Volunteer Tips and Lessons I’ve Learned From H&H
September 24, 2018

Trav­el­ing and work­ing abroad is al­ways rife with op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn. Guatemala in par­tic­u­lar is a land of rich com­plex­ity and at times has some hard lessons to teach. My time at the Health&Help Guatemala clinic has been a wild ride with many twists and turns, ups and downs, and sin­cerely eye-open­ing mo­ments. So, here it is, my list of the top-ten tips and lessons I learned as a vol­un­teer at Health&Help:

1. Buy the ticket, take the ride

Uh-oh, you did it now! You signed up to travel across the world, to the moun­tains of Guatemala, to live in a lit­tle clinic with a bunch of strangers (I did it too). And hon­estly, good for you be­cause that’s ex­actly what you have to do some­times. Sign up, buy the ticket, and let it all wash over you. Look­ing back at my time as a vol­un­teer, I’m glad I just went for it and em­braced my de­ci­sion. I’m more ready than ever to jump head-first into new ex­pe­ri­ences.

2. Don’t be afraid to try (and fail and suc­ceed and fail again)

Let’s face it. No mat­ter how qual­i­fied you may be as a med­ical pro­fes­sional or pho­tog­ra­pher or what­ever, you en­ter a to­tally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment when you come to Health&Help. The Guatemalan peo­ple and so­ci­ety, the spe­cific de­mands of the clinic, the vol­un­teers from all over the world, it’s all new from your home coun­try and your usual place of work. Every­one has their own set of quirks and skills, and so too their weak­nesses and in­di­vid­ual chal­lenges they must over­come.

I learned early on that the best thing to do is just keep swim­ming. You are go­ing to be un­com­fort­able. You are go­ing to mess up and be frus­trated by some­thing you did­n’t see com­ing. You will fail, learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence, think you have it all un­der con­trol, suc­ceed the next time, re­ally think you have it, and then fail again. But that’s okay! As long as you keep try­ing to do the right thing, you will get bet­ter. You will get stronger. I would pro­vide an ex­am­ple, but this is a process. It ap­plies to the whole deal.

3. Lan­guage is key

Ever tried to talk about healthy nu­tri­tion prac­tices in Eng­lish with some­one who only speaks Span­ish? Or harder still, only speaks Maya-K’iche flu­ently? It does­n’t work. Ever wanted to make a stu­pid joke to your fel­low Span­ish-speak­ing vol­un­teer Nurse only to re­al­ize you don’t know the word for “oc­to­pus?” Wild arm mo­tions only get you so far.

Learn­ing and speak­ing Span­ish is not only the key to be­ing an ef­fec­tive vol­un­teer, it’s fun! Make friends. Make jokes. Laugh at things that would­n’t make sense in your mother tongue. I found my time here en­riched so much by the abil­ity to find com­mon ground with pa­tients and vol­un­teers alike through lan­guage. Start study­ing now! And lis­ten to Calle 13.

4. Con­text is king

In my opin­ion, there is only so much you can learn about a place by liv­ing there. Guatemala is an es­pe­cially com­pli­cated place with in­tense di­ver­sity and a dark po­lit­i­cal his­tory. With­out some knowl­edge of his­tory or con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, a lot will be badly mis­un­der­stood. Read a book! Read a few books! Be as in­formed as you can about the coun­try you are about to en­ter. I promise it will help you make some sense of a pretty con­fus­ing ter­rain. You will be a bet­ter, more pa­tient provider and will spend less time scratch­ing your head or mak­ing guesses.

5. Choose to see pos­si­bil­ity

If I’ve learned any­thing from the two beau­ti­ful strong women who founded this clinic, it’s that “im­pos­si­ble” is a state of mind. You can take left­over oat­meal and turn it into dozens of com­pletely dif­fer­ent and de­li­cious meals. You can get do­na­tions from for­eign strangers, con­sol­i­date the med­ica­tion from many bot­tles into less, pack them tightly into lug­gage bags, hitch­hike the bags across the Mex­i­can bor­der, fill the clinic phar­macy, and then sell the bags to pay for more med­ica­tion. You can make ta­bles from scrap wood.

Their ex­am­ple proves that cre­ativ­ity will get you a long way in an area with few re­sources. I’ve learned to see new pos­si­bil­i­ties in my en­vi­ron­ment and as­sess how I can be help­ful. There is al­ways some­thing that can be done. Never say, “Never.”

6. It’s okay to be alone

The de­mands and com­plex­i­ties of clinic work can wear on peo­ple. The clinic is­n’t ex­actly gi­ant ei­ther. Af­ter work­ing to­gether all day with pa­tients, vol­un­teers of­ten spend the ma­jor­ity of their free hours in com­mon spaces, cook­ing, clean­ing, and hang­ing out. With so many di­verse and gen­er­ally in­tense per­son­al­i­ties around, it can feel a lit­tle cramped. I’ve learned to rel­ish my alone time as an op­por­tu­nity to recharge and re­flect.

I rec­om­mend walk­ing in the hills. Wit­ness the sun­set over the rolling high­land coun­try­side. Take a mo­ment to sit on our bench a lit­tle ways down the hill. Re­treat to your room to read a book. I’ve trea­sured these mo­ments as they gave me a fresh out­look on my ex­pe­ri­ence.

7. Some­one has it worse than you

Af­ter talk­ing at length with im­pov­er­ished di­a­betic par­ents who have mul­ti­ple ane­mic chil­dren and no money for ed­u­ca­tion, some of my prob­lems seem a lit­tle less se­vere. Let per­spec­tive be your guide!

8. Open your mind to dif­fer­ence

The world is a re­ally, re­ally big place (though also a small place, I guess, if you let per­spec­tive guide you). At Health&Help, I in­ter­acted with lo­cals and vol­un­teers from all walks of life, from cul­tures as dif­fer­ent as you can imag­ine, and with dis­tinct views on the way things work. These dif­fer­ences are Earth’s most won­der­ful gift. Take ad­van­tage of this op­por­tu­nity to share your per­spec­tive and cul­ture with those around you while be­ing will­ing to open your mind in un­fa­mil­iar ways.

This en­vi­ron­ment is ideal for be­com­ing a global cit­i­zen. Be pa­tient, try to lis­ten, and be your­self while at the same time tak­ing a walk in the shoes of oth­ers. Every­one, and I mean every­one, has some­thing new to teach as well as learn.

9. Be here now

You are here! So, en­joy it. Health&Help is a re­ally unique place with a good heart. Through the ups and downs, be pre­sent and breathe in the ex­pe­ri­ence. As I write this, I sit in the kitchen and lis­ten to clinic-co­founder Ka­rina and the doc­tors chat loudly. The smell of de­li­cious Ukrain­ian food and black tea fills the air. I’ve spent the day talk­ing with Mayan pa­tients about their ex­pe­ri­ences and opin­ions re­gard­ing our clinic. The sun is start­ing to go down and I can see the dis­tant hills turn­ing blue in the twi­light. The doc­tors laugh and I do too even though I don’t speak Russ­ian. I leave in two months af­ter liv­ing in Guatemala for over a year. It feels like the blink of an eye. For now, I’m ap­pre­ci­at­ing the mo­ment.

10. Eat the dobladas

Some things you just need to be here to un­der­stand.

Au­thor: Maxwell Reikosky