“Where are you from?” a keen teenager I bumped into during my walk in Melo, on the island of Flores (Indonesia), asked.

“I am from Italy,” I said. Then quickly added: “You speak excellent English.” Because he really did.

“I want to work in tourism,” he explained eagerly, as he pointed me towards his home, showing me the nuts drying in the sun, from which oil and a strong (and delicious) palm liquor would soon be extracted.

As he walked with me, this young man explained that there is no electricity in the village. Most people in Melo are farmers and generally follow a traditional and very simple lifestyle. Most of the comforts enjoyed in western societies can’t be enjoyed there. I wonder how, given the circumstances, this teenager developed the ambition to work in the tourism field. Would he ever have the opportunity to do so?

It was early afternoon, I had just had an incredible home cooked meal and had observed much of the local traditions – dances, rituals, music – in a show at the observation point. Despite the clouds and the threat of rain, it was blistering hot and I was ready to make my way back to Labuan Bajo, Flores biggest city, about one hour away, and to comforts of my air conditioned room.

Then the day took a different, interesting turn. After showing me to his home, Agung (that’s his name) took me around the village a bit. That’s how I ended up at the local school and  stumbled on Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), where I spent the rest of the day volunteering.

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A Volunteer-Sceptic, who volunteers?

“You did what?!” my sister asked in disbelief when I skyped with her later that day. “I volunteered, and I loved every minute of it!” I told her, as much in disbelief as she was.

My sister could simply not believe that, with all the things to do in Indonesia, I would end up volunteering with children. She knows me only too well: I am not exactly the motherly type and that through experience I became very wary of volunteering programs.

You see, I have worked in the human rights field for over 15 years, and as a convinced animal welfare activist I have done my good share of volunteer work. I have worked with asylum seekers and migrants; I have visited God knows how many Roma camps in Italy; I have also volunteered in animal shelters, campaigning for spading and neutering pets and adopting rather than buying.

I have also done my fair share of traveling, including a couple of long term backpacking trips across Central and South America, during which I was open to the possibility of “volunteering,” or working in exchange for a bed and some food. But as the trip went along and I tried “volunteering” several times, I decided it was not for me and I developed a strong opinion about the various programs to which lots of backpackers enroll.

To me, volunteering only can be called such if it is done for organizations that need the work of (skilled) volunteers in order to run. These organizations do not work for profits, and – more than anything else – have a reputable program and mandate to help those in need. They are not businesses that work for private profits and that save money by not paying their employees – because really, there are considerable savings when all you do is give a bed and a meal rather than a proper paycheck to your employees.

As a backpacker, I have come across an impressive number of dodgy “volunteering” programs. I have even tried them myself (lasting a whopping 3 days on a row in farm in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica), before concluding that they were just volunteered slave labor. Yet lots of travelers eagerly volunteer their time and efforts to them, without really considering the overall implications of their actions (one above all the fact that local communities should be employed and paid for those same jobs, which would in turn contribute to their empowerment).

I had often shared these views with my sister. It was pretty clear that I was never going to try to volunteer again while traveling. But then, life is full of pleasant surprises and for every dodgy business, there’s a good organization that does some amazing work in improving the lives of local communities. And sometimes we just stumble upon them, without even having to make the effort to look. This is exactly what happened to me in Melo.

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What makes a good Volunteer program?

As Agung and I walked inside the school grounds, I found myself surrounded by a multitude of children. They stared at me curiously, smiling. Attracted by the noise, a young woman came out to meet me. She welcomed me and explained that just then a group of other foreign volunteers would talk to the children participating in Taman Bacaan Pelangi program. Would I care to participate too, since I was there?

“Oh why, I don’t know! What do I have to do, exactly?” I asked, reluctant to commit. “Nothing more than saying your name, where you are from, why you are here and give them an idea of what your country is like. They appreciate meeting people from all over the world,” she said. “I guess I could…” I gave in. “But could you please tell me a bit more about the program?”

That is how I learned about Taman Bacaan Pelangi, a non-profit organization that works all over eastern Indonesia, in those parts of the country that have the lowest literacy rates, and whose main aim is to establish children’s libraries. This small organization understood the importance of education as the first step to empowerment and to improving the lives of local communities. Its project is incredibly simple in its way, yet ambitious: local schools are provided with books (which are donated, along with the always welcome money donations) and libraries are created. Through reading, children broaden their horizons and opportunities. Simple, yet brilliant, right?

I was hooked. The former human rights lawyer in me could not wait to find out more about this project.

“Fine, I am in!” I said.

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I was thus taken inside a small room packed with books and children who eagerly waited to hear what I and other (obviously foreign) volunteers had to say. I stood in front of a map, pointed at Sardinia to show I also come from an island, told the kids what fruit we produce – “Peaches? What are peaches?” (loud laughter followed). Then we sang along, ran around, played and read some of the many books. The children really cared to show their reading skills.

That’s really all it took. Those gorgeous kids just needed to know that the sky is the limit, that they can have ambitions, and they needed to hear it from me. And the best part of it is that, although I didn’t know it before, I needed to tell them, and to remind myself of that.

As the children ran out to play, I had the chance to speak to some of the longer-term volunteers. The skeptic in me just wanted to know a bit more about the organization, and find any loopholes in what seemed to be a flawless program. Only, I didn’t find any. Taman Bacaan Pelangy is a reputable (albeit very young – it was only established in 2009) organization, with a good project and a great volunteering program: volunteers have to go through a serious application project; they have to commit to a minimum time; and their duties vary from teaching English and sports to running workshops on environmental protection; from running and maintaining the library to holding reading classes and helping children with their homework.

I also enquired about the daily lives of volunteers in Melo. “We live and eat with the local community, so we really become part of it and embrace its way of life,” one of the volunteers told me. “It really is an overall cultural experience,” said another. “Although I miss bread,” his European-self added.

“How do you support yourself while you are here?” I asked.

It turned out that these volunteers receive a small allowance by their government. In their free time, they travel around the country.

Change of Mind

As I chatted with my sister later that night, and told her about my day, I concluded that volunteering can indeed be paired with traveling, if it is done consciously.

Writing this piece from the comfort of my home, it has actually occurred to me that Taman Bacaan Pelangi isn’t the first organization I accidentally stumbled upon during my travels. There has been Mosoq Runa, in the Sacred Valley of Peru – supported by the hostel I was staying at in Cusco and working with children in need. There have been animal shelters in Argentina that I came across as I was petting dogs in the street.

This is to say that it is possible to find some volunteering programs which are enriching for those who work and that, more importantly so, are meaningful for the communities involved.

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For those who prefer organizing their travels and experience in more detail, my recommendations for picking a good volunteering programs are few and simple – do some basic research and ask the right questions:

What kind of organization am I going to work for? Is it a non-governmental organization, a charity, or is it a business? What are its goals? Does its work benefit the local community? Does it employ the locals? Is there an application process for volunteers, and if so, what are the requirements?

 

So yes, volunteering can be really meaningful and it can change the lives of people – but only if it is done right. All you need to do is choose wisely!


This is a guest post by Claudia Tavani.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 23.04.21A former human rights lawyer and academic, Claudia abandoned her career to follow her true calling, which has taken her on many adventures and misadventures across the world and has involved rafting down some mighty rivers; hiking to some hidden archeological sites; zip lining across canyons; mountain biking down dangerous roads; camping on desert islands and trekking to the craters of active volcanoes. Claudia shares her inspiring stories, provides tips for other travelers and occasionally goes on a rant on her blog My Adventures Across the World. Her mission? Hiking her way up all volcanoes in the world. Follow her also on Twitter & Instagram.