The people behind the screens

It’s been one heck of a semester. I honestly can’t believe it’s March tomorrow. Both because I never thought it would come and at the same time, can’t believe it’s taken so long to get here.

Volunteer organizations are really odd, if you think about it. People pay and fundraise and feel like they are ‘buying’ something from you so they should be treated like customers. That they have “paid to be there” so they should get to do anything they want and never be told to improve – after all, they are doing it all for ‘free’. And I think in a short, week long service trip it’s pretty easy to pull that off. People basically never get over jet lag or get past the honeymoon phase of culture shock or are there long enough to see their lack of impact before they’re on their way back home. But that isn’t really being a development worker. It’s not the same as being out in the trenches of development for an extended period of time. The trenches are hard. Real development is incredibly hard.

Most volunteer organizations, at least in the one I work with, the volunteers get treated like employees, not customers. And honestly that makes a lot of difference in how we both think things will go in country. The donation to participate in our programs is used to run everything. A volunteer’s fundraising pays for all the projects, the office, the career fairs, the flyers, the entire organization, but it doesn’t mean that they’re buying a perfect experience that will be exactly what they think it should be or what they “deserve” – it will be what we say it is: a work experience in international development. The way that looks changes everyday on the ground, so it’s pretty impossible to fully prepare for, and it requires things most humans don’t volunteer to do: performance evaluations, dirty jobs that aren’t fun sometimes, writing project proposals, calculating and writing reports, meetings, rules, the list goes on.

And although when people are standing in America it sounds exciting and fun to go across the world for a few months and work on development or crisis relief, and they excitedly sign the paperwork and get the handbook of expectations, in the end it’s often such a different experience than they thought it would be. It’s harder, and messier, and annoying, and full of culture shock, and team members with weaknesses, and leaders who are learning, and projects that don’t go well, or partners who want you to change something you don’t want to change, and it’s painful. A painful, uncomfortable, growing that requires forgiveness, flexibility, and maturity. And sometimes I win at the whole teaching and mentoring role thing, and sometimes I get owned and can’t make the impact I’m trying to have or fix any of the problems going on, and it’s so disheartening.

I wish everyone saw how hard our staff works. I wish they could see how many hours they give and the number of nights they stay up incredibly too late in the office, and the hours of conversations spent on how to make programs better and the volunteer experience easier. It’s all so easily dismissed when someone isn’t happy with something. It’s so easy to hate someone that isn’t there, or someone you only really know from behind a screen.

Working for HELP the last 5 years has helped me have so more patience than I thought I could ever obtain in this life. The other day while checking out at a store I had to wait as the employee figured out something they had done wrong on the checkout system. And they got so flustered and kept apologizing over and over. And I kept repeating that it was ‘fine, really’.

It was probably only ten minutes, basically no time in the grand scheme of things. I knew it was a mistake they made and they weren’t trying to delay me or make me wait – but it was stressing this poor employee out like crazy. In the end I actually helped them figure out the issue and we both laughed, but I felt for this human and their poor, little flustered soul, just trying to do the best they could but knowing that I might yell at them at any moment for slowing me down, for messing up, for whatever. It was obvious they had been yelled at before. “Thanks for being so nice to me. Again, I’m really sorry.” I smiled and shrugged it off but felt so sad as I walked to my car.  Me being slowed down ten minutes instead of having immediate and perfect results honestly just didn’t matter that much. It didn’t matter more than the person standing in front of me. And I wish I could somehow help everyone treat people like a friend who was trying instead of an idiot out to ruin their life.

I’m not sure why I can’t always kill hateful gossip on teams. Or make all volunteers realize that sometimes things wont be perfect, but it’s not for lack of genuine trying. Or why people still hate me in the end when I spend hours and hours and loose sleep trying to solve their problems and help them, but it’s sure disheartening. I think everyone could use a little more kindness. To themselves when they fall short and to those failing around them. It sure would make the world a softer, lovelier place, which honestly we could all use.

Be gentle, friends. We’re all just human.


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