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Viewpoints: Why we volunteer

Because otherwise we remain pressed for contentment



"Leaving my daily routine opens me to surprise: a hummingbird’s whirr, a foreign flavor, a child flinging his arms around me in a frenzy of welcome," says Shirley Stephenson.

Illustration by Richard Mia

The night before I left for Guatemala City, I was seized by an inexplicable anxiety. A nurse practitioner, I had volunteered to spend a week last February working with Shared Beat, a nonprofit that runs clinics in Guatemala staffed in large part by volunteers from the United States. It also provides scholarships for Guatemalans pursuing careers in medicine, nursing, and related fields. I admired the organization’s ambitious agenda, and I needed the sense of contribution and connection that comes with any volunteer effort.

But as I packed my insect repellent and antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea, I realized it had been five years since I had volunteered abroad. Despite my enthusiasm for this trip — and my previous work in Central America, Haiti, and Africa — I felt out of practice. That night before leaving, I checked the U.S. Department of State travel advisory for Guatemala. Level 3: Reconsider travel.

I questioned my decision. I’m responsible for patients at work. I have a family, plants, pets, and a widowed mom afraid of falling. Even this short trip would create some apprehension and inconvenience. Yet no one said, “Don’t go.” On the contrary, my husband said when I left: “We’ll worry about you a little. But you wouldn’t be you if you didn’t do this.” 

I was greeted at the airport in Guatemala by two men and an otherwise empty school bus. As we wound through the mountains, the driver’s companion intermittently swung open the bus’s folding door and leaned into traffic, gesticulating and whistling to signal lane changes. Burning debris and exhaust fumes shrouded the capital. I squinted in the dusty sunlight, astonished at how many birds dived through the haze.

Flaubert said travel makes one modest: You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. Amid the patchy dogs, the scarlet bougainvillea punching through iron gates, and the shouts of roadside vendors selling tamales, elote, and skewered mango carved into blossoms, I understood what Gustave was getting at. In the plaza near the guesthouse, children chased balloons. A family parting on a corner blessed one another before kissing goodbye. I stopped to eat a plantain that had been roasted in its peel until it tasted like a buttery sunrise, and I was reminded that in many parts of the world a napkin, like a glass of drinkable water, is an extravagance. 

The volunteers in our 26-person group came from all over the United States. We were a mix of doctors and nurses, medical students, an audiologist, and retirees from various professions. Several volunteers had been participating every six months for the past 12 years. Throughout the week we filled each other’s water bottles, shared snacks, and inquired about one another’s gastrointestinal health. Everyone woke in the chilly, dark hours of morning and traveled by van to different schools and clinics. 

The first patient I saw had a leg wound sustained while scavenging in the vast garbage dump in Guatemala City. She was gregarious, sunburned, covered in dirt from the knees down, and proud of her job recycling plastic and copper stripped from discarded wiring. I thought of all the trash I would shed in just one week — travel-size toothpaste tubes, a disposable razor, mini shampoo bottles, zip-close bags.

Another patient, a Mayan woman in traditional embroidered dress, expressed her grief after the loss of a son: “I have other children, but each is a part of me. Now I am incomplete.” She described other hardships she had endured, such as fleeing her home in the highlands during Guatemala’s civil war and losing family during that 36-year conflict. She had already joined a women’s support group, but she came to the clinic because sharing her story helped her. This level of trust and intimacy, always a privilege, seems even more astounding in another language and landscape. 

Afternoons were temperate and sunny. A breeze carried the stench of garbage through neighboring streets. At times it locked your throat, as if you had put your head in a dumpster on a humid summer day. “You never get used to it,” said a resident, “even after a lifetime here.” Lunch was rice and beans or pumpkin seed stew, whatever was being served in the cafeteria. Patient care and any needed follow-up were possible because of the extraordinary local nurses, social workers, and program coordinators with whom we partnered. When not working, fellow volunteers discussed their lives at home. I learned about rattlesnake bites, Maine’s treacherous tides, favorite books, cattle ranching, and coordinating disaster relief. I relished this exchange with people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Depending on traffic, the commute to and from the clinics took one or two hours. Shoulder-to-shoulder in the vans, we had time to kill. Some conversation unfolded quietly and focused on clinical cases; on other occasions, we discussed sustainability and the necessity of the scholarship program. At night, those one-on-one talks often spread into animated group discussions, as when one of the volunteers, who had been raised in Guatemala but moved to the United States in her teens, recalled that as a child, she had pitied anyone living in such poverty. “But it’s completely the wrong sentiment,” she asserted. Compassion, yes. But the patients we saw were resilient, self-sufficient, and dignified.

Another evening, someone began humming a Johnny Cash tune. We had been up since 5 a.m. and collectively seen hundreds of patients. Giddiness hijacked the van, and everyone joined in a spectacularly awful rendition of “Ring of Fire”:

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring . . .
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire.

Not every group is ideal. I’ve been on those trips, too. Sometimes the van gets stuck in mud, an earthquake splinters life into chaos, or people get sick. Sometimes participants are cavalier and put others at risk.

But with a responsible team, a service trip gives more than it asks. Despite my early jitters, I now knew why I had needed to come to Guatemala: because the human connection dissolves differences, and an unfamiliar corner of the world becomes part of my fabric. Because opportunities to volunteer reveal the overlap in cultures, traditions, struggles, and solutions. Because the process simultaneously grounds and stretches me. Because leaving my daily routine opens me to surprise: a hummingbird’s whirr, a foreign flavor, a child flinging his arms around me in a frenzy of welcome. 

At home, I’m more likely to overlook the lessons that life offers. I work in a hospital, where every day reminds me how fortunate I am, while providing examples of strength and grace. Still, it doesn’t always curb my irritation when my computer freezes or my swim goggles break at the gym. A different environment reinforces humility and transcends perceived divisions. It also alters my approach to work: It’s easier to see the usefulness of tasks that might otherwise seem rote or tiresome. I hustle more purposefully when I’m volunteering, be it for eight hours or eight days. Then I carry that energy home.

Most volunteer trips take us to regions that are less economically rich. This reminds us how we take for granted certain necessities — our roofs, our refrigerators, our drinkable tap water — and overlook our fortune in having certain luxuries: our dishwashers, our smartphones, our private cars. Yet even a short time away also underscores how, within this world of amenities, we remain pressed — not just for time, but for contentment.

Fewer resources can spur resourcefulness. We see what’s enough and creatively bridge gaps. Often, I end up using my memory, the database I don’t depend on nearly enough when at home, to record the present and recall the past. Our last morning in Guatemala, a small group of us hiked to an overlook. It began drizzling, and a rainbow stooped over the town. We aimed our cameras, but the rainbow didn’t appear in anyone’s photos, making it that much more of everything a rainbow should be.

So we just watched the sky and grinned at one another, like a family acknowledging a private joke that no one needs to put into words. 

• Shirley Stephenson wrote about “kayaking grandma” Deborah Walters for the November 2017 issue of The Rotarian.