I was recently called a “seasoned volunteer” by a Givingway staff member and I must admit I kind of love the title. As a “seasoned volunteer”, I hope the sharing of my experience can act as words of encouragement to prospective volunteers.
I am one of those annoying people who you have to sit down and have a coffee with in order to explain where I am from. But here is my one line summary: originally Indian; born in Spain; lived in the United Kingdom for 8 years; lived in Portugal for 8 years; went to university in Canada and have been in Ecuador and Brazil for the last year of my life. I have volunteered at various NGO’s, mainly in South America. Being a born traveller sure helped drive my passion for volunteering; although my experience has assured me that there is no single profile of a volunteer. People from different walks of life, with different interests and different life experiences come together in the volunteer world which is partly what makes it is so interesting.
Currently, I am, working for an organization called the Biodiversity Research Institute (IPBio) in Iporanga, located in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, that performs conservation research and develops environmental education programs. I wanted to give you an overview of my experience.
I was volunteering for another environmental NGO at the time when I found out about IPBio. A kind friend pointed me in IPBio’s direction. I was to be their first international volunteer and after a discussion with the manager of the Institute my mission was clear: set up the IPBio volunteer program. I went to Ecuador for the Christmas holidays and when I came back I arrived in the city of São Paulo with a trek through the Atlantic Forest still ahead of me. I went from one of the largest cities in the world to a small town of 5,000 people. Peace at last. The rocky road into Iporanga curved in between the native forest and cave-covered hills. By the way, Iporanga is known as the Cave Capital of Brazil with over 300 caves. I got off the bus at the Betary Reserve, constructed by the institute, where the IPBio center is based. I was meet by Ana, the manager, and Rafael the grounds-keeper who welcomed me with open arms. We arrived at a wooden bridge that dangles over the transparent water of Betary River. I dragged my 26 kilo bag across this bridge to find a state of the art research center surrounded by lush Atlantic Forest. The howler monkeys were chattering in the distance. I dropped off my bag at the volunteer house, a fully-equipped wooden cabin, where I would be staying. Then, I was given the executive tour around the reserve to the: microclimate greenhouse where amphibians and bioluminescent mushrooms stay and the aquarium with underwater windows so researchers can study fish breeding behavior.
My time here has been incredible. I have visited the caves at the State Park; buoy-crossed down the river; photographed various species of frogs; encountered a group of wild capuchin monkeys; and helped our biologist collect bioluminescent mushrooms. I have also been working hard: creating the volunteer pack, developing volunteer ads and figuring out how the administration of the volunteer program would function. I am proud to say I successfully managed to get the volunteer program up-and-running.
I have found my little paradise and it looks like, fingers crossed and all the paper work goes well, I will be staying in Brazil to manage the volunteer program here at IPBio so hopefully I will see some of you soon!
Anyways, I wanted to briefly touch on what volunteering is about to me.
Sorry for being so cliché (even saying “being so cliché” is being cliché) but a volunteer experience can truly change your life. But I think what volunteers need to remember is that volunteering isn’t, and shouldn’t, be only about you. It should be about changing others’ lives or working for a cause. Many of us are lucky enough to have the time on our hands to be concerned for others or the world. I remember, when I was volunteering in Argentina, that I was asked by a farmer about how I ended up finding their small community. I responded “I am a volunteer”… well let’s say the conversation went on for hours as I had to: explain the concept of volunteering; the philosophy behind it; and perform an onsite psyche evaluation to assess if I was crazy. This was so outlandish to him, “who would milk my cows?” he asked. We have the time and the desire to dedicate our efforts to doing what we believe is best for the world. This is a privilege few people have. We must make the most of it.