by Samantha Hodder
Published on: Oct 27, 2009
Type: Experiences

I have worked and volunteered with several non-profit organizations in Canada and Latin America and the experiences I have had have been incredibly enriching.

While volunteering in rural Ecuador, I was able to do environmental work, community development work, and teach in an elementary school. Many saw the experience as selfless and admirable, but I know that I gained many more rewards from it than did the people I volunteered to help. For them, the experience was helpful, but for me it was life-changing. I gained valuable work experience, learned a new language, and made friendships that would change my life.

While living in Canada, I found ways to continue to help those in Latin America and other regions of the world, by volunteering online and with organizations that support non-profit work in Latin America. Volunteering online with Taking IT Global enables me to support individuals and organizations across the world, who are working towards similar goals to me. It also helps me connect with youth across the world with similar values so that we can work together and inspire each other.

My volunteer work has been varied, but I’d like to go into detail about one particular volunteer position that impacted me more than any other: my three month volunteer internship in rural Ecuador: My days in Ecuador were divided between the nearby village and the biological station on which I lived. Every morning I would walk for around 45 minutes on a dirt (sometimes mud) road to the tiny village of Bunche, which had fewer than 100 inhabitants. There, I taught English as a Second Language to all grades of the village’s elementary/ middle school. Afterwards there was a break, during which I would play with the children and get to socialize with them outside of the classroom setting.

Some of my students loved learning English, while others used class time as a time to act out and even run away, leaving the classroom to see what the silly “gringa” (foreign) teacher would do to get them back into class. Most, however, were eager to learn, attentive, and patient with my beginner Spanish abilities. The NGO I worked with would often organize community events such as cleanups of buildings and parks, and the construction of structures for the village, and my students were always the first to volunteer their help and the last to leave the event. The loved interacting with the volunteers and helping in any way they could. Some of the activities they participated in with me were a healthcare building cleanup, a park cleanup, and the construction of a playground for their school. After a morning of teaching, I would return to the biological station for an afternoon of manual labour. I quickly learned that my body was not built for that type of work. I became ill, and was achy and tired for each and every day that I volunteered there, but, nonetheless, it was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

The station did work and research in the areas of sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, and aquaculture. My work included: harvesting, planting and replanting fruit, repairing, setting up, and tearing down barbed wired fences, clearing trails and fields, pruning bamboo trees, harvesting seafood, performing yield estimates in the aquaculture ponds, beach cleanups, and sea turtle monitoring, to name a few. I never thought that I would become so used to using a machete in my day-to-day life! The work was hard and sometimes dangerous, and I was left with the feeling of incompetence daily, since the locals I worked with could complete a task perfectly in minutes that it took me hours to do imperfectly.

Though the work involved hard labour, sweat, achiness, bug bites, animal encounters, and more, it enabled me to experience the countryside in a way that never would have been possible otherwise. During the long hikes through the jungle I saw plants, animals, and stunning views that amazed me. I also gained an appreciation for agricultural labourers and the backbreaking labour they do daily. I had the chance to form friendships with labourers and farmers, and to give them some much needed (if slightly incompetent) help working on their land. I was able to bond with these individuals in addition to my students in the nearby village. I got to experience both worlds. The combination of the two different forms of work was invaluable and I am forever grateful for the opportunity that was given to me to do this work.

Most of all, what I learned while volunteering is not so much that I can help others who are less fortunate, but rather that those less fortunate can help me. I met the most incredible people while I was volunteering. The individuals living in poverty with little education and almost no health care could use my help in some ways, but I had never imagined how much they had to teach me about life. No matter how little they had, they were the most giving individuals I had ever met. No matter how tired they were, they always had energy for a party. No matter who they were, they had time for me. They seemed to love life more than almost anyone I had met in North America. This passion for living was what taught me the most. No matter how much you have or how much you lack, what is important is happiness, family, and friendship. If you have those 3 things (and hopefully good health as well), then you have reached a level of happiness most have not reached and no amount of money can help you attain.

I made a small but significant impact on those I worked with and interacted with during my time volunteering in Ecuador, and they made a life changing impact on me.

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