The Importance of “We”

I have three days left at Hogar Amantaní, and I want to share some final thoughts about my time as a volunteer and really think about what I have brought and what I have learned. I want to go back to the first blog post I wrote on May 13th soon after Duke Engage Academy, in which I was so excited to apply what I have learned in the classroom to a “real life” context.

One of the questions that I want to think about is: What was my main role at Amantaní? Looking back on my time as a whole, I very much feel that it was to make the lives of the full-time employees easier for the past two months. When there were volunteers from Spain as well, I spent most of my mornings washing the dishes from breakfast. However, when they left, and I became the only volunteer with the group of fifteen two to five year olds, Lupe needed my help getting the kids through their daily routines. Therefore, I no longer had time to wash the dishes and Sra. Antonia had to resume her responsibility of washing the breakfast dishes on top of cooking three meals a day for fifteen kids. For the past two weeks, during the time I had previously spent washing dishes, I have helped the kids go through their morning routines of washing their faces and brushing their teeth and then taken them downstairs to play so they don’t get bored before they eat a snack at 9:30. However, I know that when I leave after Thursday, Lupe will just have to help a few more kids with their morning routines and the kids will just have to remain upstairs in their rooms until snack time. Furthermore, just as Sra. Antonia is capable of washing the dishes in half the time that I am, Lupe is twice as fast as me at changing diapers and much more efficient in getting the kids through their morning routines. Have I helped at Amantaní? Absolutely. However, will the Hogar cease to function after my last day on Thursday? Absolutely not.

At the same time, I cannot forget about moments in which Katy and I have felt extremely needed during our time here. For example, last week, two babies were in the hospital. Lupe had to go visit them one day and Katy and I were left alone with the kids for most of the morning. Also, everyday I have to pick up kids from two different schools. On Fridays, one of the kids has to stay later for physical education, but I still have to go to her school at 1 to give her lunch. Therefore, I get back later on Fridays, but I still have to go pick up the other kid at his school. This past Friday, his teacher asked me why I was so late and I had to explain the situation to her. In that moment, I felt guiltier than ever that I was leaving in a week. It is extremely difficult for one of the employees to have to leave to go get kids from school when there are fifteen other children that need to be taken care of. Being an extra set of hands to pick up the kids from school significantly helps Lupe and the other employees in charge of the two to five year olds.

Tying this back to the question of what I have learned as a volunteer at Amantaní and how it relates to what I have learned in a classroom setting this past year at Duke, I have learned a lot about the nature of volunteer work, especially volunteer work abroad. In my first blog post, I talked about a presentation during Duke Engage Academy talking about how we may be perceived as arrogant outsiders that want to “save” an organization or community. After explaining the “Savage-Victim-Savior” or the “Messiah” complex, I said, “However, the presenters did not mean to discourage us but only to encourage us to acknowledge the great complexity of the work we are about to do – to realize that we are not going to go into these communities and miraculously solve problems that have present for years.” To apply this to the context of Amantaní, I have learned that the humbling nature of volunteer work can give us insight into more complex and deeply rooted issues present in a country, but we cannot expect to dive right in and solve these problems. Even though most of my hours were spent doing work such as watering plants, washing dishes, and playing with children, I have gotten profound insight into the existing problems such as stigma against adoption, the difficulties that NGOs face, and the lack of sexual education and access to birth control in Peru as well as the intricacy of these problems. I have learned that service work is complex and requires a lot of thought and reflection, but that just because making a difference and doing effective volunteer work is complex doesn’t mean that it cannot be done. It means that one should not enter a volunteer site with the privileged mindset that he or she can use his or her superior knowledge to change a community for what he or she thinks is “the better.” Sometimes a tangible difference is simply not what an organization needs.

Related to this, I have learned that especially when you are entering a community with a culture different than your own, it is very important to observe before acting. I spent at least my first two weeks at Amantaní observing the way that the employees interact with the kids in order to learn what is appropriate in both the contexts of Peruvian culture in general and Hogar Amantaní in specific. This helped me to become both culturally competent and accustomed to the norms of the Hogar. I think that observing before acting can be an effective way to avoid the Savage-Victim Savior Complex in a volunteer site. Even beyond to avoid forming a negative relationship with your volunteer site, I feel that this is important because different cultures really do deserve respect and learning about cultures other than your own can change your perspective in ways you never thought possible.

I think that the most important lesson I’ve learned this summer is the importance of time and patience when doing volunteer work. I’ve mentioned this in past posts, but I’d like to reiterate how difficult it was for me to form relationships with the employees and kids in Amantaní. It took time, hard work, and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learned that forming relationships, especially across cultures, is not easy, but that it is also essential to doing service work and making an impact on a community. Forming relationships helps us get past the mentality that “we” are helping “them” and instead feel that we are all working together to accomplish a similar objective. At Amantaní, I feel like I am a part of a community or even a family that is working together to give the kids the life that they deserve. I did not feel a part of this family after the first day or even after the first week. It took time for me to adjust and connect with people. This will not only impact the way I approach volunteer work in the future but the way that I approach relationships in general.

From my experience at Hogar Amantaní, I will not only take the beautiful memories of Mauricio and Adrian’s adoptions or just spending my mornings building houses out of blocks with the kids, but I will also go back to the United States with a deeper understanding of the complexity of volunteer work, cultural competency, and relationship building. Thank you Duke Engage, SIT, and Hogar Amantaní for enhancing my perspective and opening my eyes to a part of the world I never thought I would have the opportunity to know.

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1 Response to The Importance of “We”

  1. Hi Gianna

    Thank you for your reflections… it was really interesting to see your thoughts on priveledge just after I read the Duke Engage China blog about the same topic. It seems like this is a resonant theme across Duke Engage cohorts.

    Most of all, I appreciate you taking the time to share your reflections. It may be too late to ask this, but did you get a chance to share these with your Hogar colleagues? To hear their reflections?

    Thanks again

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