“Get ready for the most challenging six months of your life,” read the ad on volunteering. The most challenging six months of my life? Bring it on!
Global Xchange (GX) is a youth volunteering program of the Voluntary Service Overseas that allows young people to initiate positive change by helping organizations and communities both in the Philippines and the United Kingdom. I feel a sense of fulfillment by volunteering, knowing that I can do something good for others without cost in our dog-eat-dog world. I decided that the corporate world was not my place, resigned from my job, and took the challenge of the GX.
After all the rigors of application, assessment, training, and clearances (I had to gain weight before I was medically cleared), we were off for the first phase of the program. Our destination – Bradford, West Yorkshire, located in the northern part of England. It is a small, friendly city with diverse people and culture, very similar to my home city, Baguio, in terms of size, weather, and the general feel of the place.
Our group comprised of 10 British and 10 Filipinos. Each one had a counterpart with whom we lived and worked with in a cross-cultural environment.
I had to get used to the language and the food. Bradford had its own British accent where “funny” is “foony” and “sunny” is “soony”. Rice-eating Filipinos learned to eat bread or cereals for breakfast and sandwich with fruits or crisps (that’s how the Brits call their chips) for lunch.
My first volunteer placement was at Seen and Heard, a program of Barnardo’s, a national charity organization that takes care of young people. My British counterpart and I interviewed some of the organization’s independent visitors and produced a promotional video from it.
My second volunteer work was at Abigail’s Project, an organization that provides accommodation for destitute asylum seekers, people who fled their countries due to political or religious persecution but became impoverished in the places where they sought protection. We helped set up the house where they would be staying and assisted establishing the office of the organization.
The Community Action Days (CADs) afforded the whole team to work on various community projects and activities from cleaning up and gardening to advocacy projects such as the peace display and presentations in an arms museum. We showcased Filipino games and dances, songs and poetry during our Filipino Fun Day and Night. We got a bit serious and discussed global issues like poverty, peace and development during Global Citizenship Days.
We tried to make sense of what we did. We needed to validate that our volunteer work was actually making a difference. For instance, we asked how gardening could be significant. We may not understand now neither see the results of what we did but I’m sure that the effects of volunteering are exponential, if not for others then for the inner self.
After more than 7,200 collective hours of volunteering in Bradford, we traveled to Mindanao for the second phase of the program.
Mindanao is an impression of danger and war, but the conflict in this Land of Promise is complex and historical. It is conflict over the rich natural resources of the region where greed and ignorance fuel all the negativity associated to the place.
My volunteer work in Iligan City was totally different from what we had in Bradford. We helped the Lanao Educational Arts for Development, Inc., a non-government organization that uses music and the arts for peace advocacy, organize a music festival for peace that promotes Iligan City and Mindanao as Zones of Peace.
During our CADs here, we had a sports fest at the School for the Deaf, tree planting with students and community locals, a fundraising gig, and play time with children in a disability rehabilitation center and kindergarten.
Because Iligan is such a small city, boredom set into me until the city was placed on yellow alert. We became anxious but had to be vigilant as the supposed ambush of the Philippine Marines by the Abu Sayyaf brewed war in Basilan. At that time I was reading Gracia Burnham’s “In the Presence of My Enemies,” an account of her kidnapping experience in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf. We felt relieved when the situation sort of improved.
All in all my GX volunteering journey has been challenging, frustrating, rewarding, and fun. I think I gained more than what I offered. Volunteers would usually think they could change the world but in the end, they wouldn’t have quite changed others. Others change them instead.
This journey is a prelude to simply be the change I wish to see in the world.