The dark side of volunteering abroad

Today is one of the days when I really miss home. The beginning of the week has been rough, and things haven’t really been going the best way possible. During this and last week I have experienced many situations that have been conflicting with my personal values and right now I feel rather miserable. It is not only one time that I have considered if it would be more worthwhile for me to drop out from the AIESEC volunteering project and spend my time in Costa Rica doing something else but I guess the feeling of doing something important still keeps me here. Let me explain what have been the three things that have made me feel the most uncomfortable during the past ten days.

1) Denying the cuddles from children

As I wrote in my previous post, I could not start in the volunteering project I applied for immediately as the kindergarten was unexpectedly closed for the whole week. So, instead I got a great opportunity to join other volunteers in an orphanage or maybe better said children’s home where there are approximately 25 kids who don’t have parents at all or have been taken away from their families. I heard some terrible stories about child abuse and using a-few-month-old children as drug mules. Already this was shocking enough to get my head spinning and make me think a lot about how unfair starts for life some of us get. Furthermore, it was heartbreaking to see some of the consequences of the trauma the kids have gone through. Already some of the smallest kids from the age of 6-12 months were not seeking any contact by looking at you or trying to play with you as children with secure attachment would do. Also many of the barely school-aged kids had tendency to avoid showing any need for company but once you got playing with them, they really enjoyed it and didn’t want to let you go to play with others.

However, the thing that hit me most was that when some of the kids still sought for cuddles or wanted to be carried every now and then, the caregivers told us not to react to that. This left me perplexed as I have understood from psychology courses that all children (and adults) need human contact to develop safe relationships. I understand that due to their difficult past some of the kids might not be comfortable with somebody hugging them which is why it is justified to be more careful and let the children choose what hey feel comfortable with. But if the kids seek for the attention and love in such a natural way, I though it would be only good for them to have somebody to cuddle with. I know that the caregivers in that place are doing their absolute best and I really admire how they have energy and talent to work in such a challenging environment. It is also understandable that they don’t have enough hands to cuddle every kid all the time, but I would love if somebody explained me why it is so strictly forbidden when it is possible with extra pairs of hands. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to ask them directly but maybe some of you smart blog readers know the answer and can enlighten me!

2) Teaching children through religion

I got to start in the project I originally applied for finally this Monday. I have been volunteering there now only for two days and I am already very confused. The first day was a cleaning day as the kids were to arrive only on Tuesday after vacations. At some point during my first day I was told to go to the chapel with others and as I expected us to clean it, I didn’t think it would be any big deal. Well, we did not clean it but instead it was a full session of praying and hearing the gospel of Mark. I felt very uncomfortable as I am not really religious and I had not been prepared for being involved in a catholic ceremony without anyone asking me if it was okay. Only after the session I was asked if I am catholic and when I replied no, I was told that they hope the God fills my heart while I am volunteering with them. Well, after the session in the chapel we had lunch together and, out of the blue, one of the mothers brought a bottle of Tequila Rose to the table and we drank that with the lunch. Everybody was really friendly towards me and the lunch was really relaxed (not only due to Tequila Rose) but at this point I really didn’t know what to think anymore.

The next day I learned that every day at the kinder starts with some religious jingles and songs. The kids also have a session at the chapel with the catechist on a daily basis. In addition, both before and after the lunch there are some religious rituals taking place. With all due respect to Catholicism and other religions in the world, if this is how you want to raise your children, feel free to do so. However, as I personally believe it would be best for the children to hear more about different religions and views of life instead of focusing on only one to such an extensive extent, I am having some bit mixed feelings about volunteering here. I had no clue I would be volunteering in such a religious place before arriving here and hence this really took me by surprise. I accept people raising their children to be catholics as well as decorating the kindergarten with religious symbols if that is what they think is the best for the children, but I don’t want to be part of something that conflicts with my personal values. I am struggling to figure out if finding a respectful way of opting out from the religious activities would be enough to make me feel comfortable or if I really need to step aside and do something else during my time here.

3) Living on the expense of someone else

Remember that in my previous post I told about AIESEC and the costs of participating to a project like this? Well, luckily any of the costs haven’t been surprising as I was well informed about them before accepting the placement. Nonetheless, I learned only after writing my previous post that actually the families we volunteers are staying with are not receiving any money to compensate the costs for the accommodation and food they are providing. This created a huge conflict in my head as coming from Finland my earnings were way bigger before coming here than what people earn in Costa Rica. On the other hand, I already paid quite a big amount of money in order to participate to the project knowing that I would not need to pay for accommodation and most of the food so I did not budget for paying extra for the family. Anyway, this is no problem for the awesome family I am staying with as they were well aware that they would not be compensated, but I am having an internal battle in my head about the topic. I really feel bad about living on the expense of someone else but also at the same time am extremely grateful to the lovely family I’ve got here that they volunteered to host me without any compensation.

After understanding the dynamics of the money flow within AIESEC I cannot help to be slightly disappointed even though it was my own misunderstanding. I am now regretting a bit that I am doing two projects through them – Brazil following after Costa Rica – as, in my opinion, the money does not go to the people who bare the costs or who need it the most but instead to marketing and administration of AIESEC. Coming from business background I do understand that every organization – enterprise or NGO – has some running costs to cover in order to run stable operations, but I feel that it is unethical from AIESEC not to be transparent enough about the topic and as a matter of fact to be slightly misleading as in the portal that is used for applications it says in the fee breakdown among other things “accommodation costs”. When asking about the topic I got the reply that the fee would have covered the emergency accommodation costs in case they would not have had a family for me starting from the very beginning and that is why accommodation costs are mentioned.

So, during the last ten days it’s been a lot of pondering, questioning and sometimes even crying. On top of that, I was unlucky enough to spend yesterday afternoon in the toilet puking as I managed to get some sort of a food poisoning when eating at the kinder yesterday. Today I stayed at home and have tried to recover eating bread and drinking coconut milk while others left for a party. Well, all this is the dark side of volunteering and traveling abroad. It is a part that you cannot avoid when on an adventure like this. I am sure I’ll have learned a great deal, once I get my head straight again.

Even though I am not having the time of my life right at this moment and it would be easier to be under the blanket in Finland eating mom’s cookings, I know it is worth it and hopefully already tomorrow is a brighter day. At least I am not puking anymore and I’ll get to see the kids – the main reason why I still have energy to show up to the kinder with a smiling face – tomorrow, so it must be getting better!

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