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Volunteer Responsibly

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Volunteering abroad has become a craze, particularly for college students, over the last ten years. With a globalising world, young people in Ireland are feeling more and more of a responsibility to serve in the majority world.

College students from all over the country have packed their bags and jetted off to faraway countries for an intercultural, volunteering experience. Damien MacThomáis is one of these students. Here he reports on his experiences with Learning Service.

Since a young age, volunteering abroad has had almost romantic connotations for me. Going away, helping people, in a new culture, having a unique experience all sounded very appealing. But it wasn’t until I was researching for my gap year (which never actually came together) that I realised something very important about volunteering abroad. Something that chilled me. I came across a lot of volunteering organisations that had one thing in common – that they were selling me a dressed up (and expensive!) experience away, complete with a pat on the back for doing something ‘good’. This really made me question why I wanted to volunteer. Was it for the benefit of me or for other people? What actually is volunteering abroad? Does it even ‘do good’ as it was being advertised to me?

This state of doubt made me realise that volunteering has to be about empowerment and progress in the community that we are serving. The college volunteers come and go and their contribution can be really appreciated – as long as it is accompanied with learning and sustainability.

I came across an organisation recently that has really resonated with me and I wanted to share it with you. It’s called Learning Service and they want to get us thinking and rethinking about volunteering. The idea is to learn before we serve. This initial learning step is not being given enough attention in many organisations and it is vital in order to get quality volunteering that leads to progress and empowerment. If we don’t research our options thoroughly, understand the context and culture of the communities we visit, and ensure that our skills and experience match the needs of those communities, volunteering can be wasteful, and at worst, cause a lot of harm.

Learning Service is currently launching a set of videos as part of the ‘Know Before You Go’ campaign (see their website learningservice.info). A different video will be posted on their website every week for six weeks about how to get the most out of a volunteer experience – and the second one goes live today! I highly recommend that young people like me, in particular, check out these videos and get informed about the realities of volunteering abroad so they can make sure that the impact they have on the world is one that the positive one they wanted to make (also, the videos are attached to a mini competition with some cool little prizes)..

I realised through my research that the ‘good’ that was being advertised for me ‘to do’ by many sending organisations was not one that was empowering communities, it was one that was shattering them. Why? Because as this has moved into being a mainstream activity, a rite of passage for privileged college students, the focus of volunteering had shifted. The spotlight was on maximising the volunteers’ own experience rather than supporting sustainable progress. This focus can be recentralised, as Learning Service suggests, onto learning. . I am calling on volunteering organisations to include an emphasis on learning before and throughout serving and joining me in creating a discussion about the effectiveness of the volunteering opportunities they offer.

In the end, I decided to go with EIL Intercultural Learning based in Cork. I went to Mexico City for my first long, college summer on a human rights placement working with refugees. What I like so much about EIL is their focus on development education and action in Ireland upon a volunteers’ return (which is incidentally something I also like about Comhlámh). I am still involved with EIL because I am constantly learning with them and they keep me engaged with global issues. I am not an expert in refugee law, I am only a only student at university, but I am doing what students do best: learning!

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