What One VolunteerMatch Employee Learned in Chile
By Shannon David
At VolunteerMatch, we like to practice what we preach, which is one of the many reasons I feel lucky to work here. Last month, I was able to take a week off from my normal duties supporting our nonprofit community and join 11 other volunteers from around the U.S. on a week-long trip to Santiago, Chile with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program.
When I started at VolunteerMatch just over a year ago and learned about the paid volunteer time off (VTO) benefit offered to employees, I knew I had to make the most of it. A friend recommended Global Village, and before I knew it, I had completed a phone interview with the volunteer team leader and signed up for the trip. That was in early 2014, so I had nearly a full year to fundraise for Habitat Chile, learn a little Spanish, and talk up the trip to anyone who would listen.
We worked on a program called Nuestros Hijos Vuelven a Casa (Our Children Return Home), which supports families with children who have catastrophic illnesses or serious disabilities. Habitat Chile gets referrals from the hospital and screens the families to make sure they comply with program requirements. Then, they develop a plan to improve their existing home to better meet the physical and medical needs of the child. My team spent a week at the home of Patricia, a 17-year-old suffering from cancer. She lives with her parents and two little sisters in a very small apartment and needed a bedroom of her own and a larger bathroom that she could move around in more easily.
With the help and guidance of two professional builders, the Habitat Chile staff, an interpreter, and of course the family themselves (read more about Habitat’s “sweat equity” model here), we built two new bedrooms onto the back of the apartment and began work on expanding the bathroom. My tasks included digging foundation, shoveling and mixing cement, installing styrofoam insulation, hammering a lot of nails, putting up drywall, sanding, painting, and painting some more.
Here are a few things I learned along the way:
- Volunteering abroad is a lot like volunteering in your own community. Altruism and a common goal can bring people together like few other things can.
- Socioeconomic divides, cultural differences, and language barriers make achieving something together and building a personal connection even more rewarding than usual.
- A surprising level of supervision on a construction site can be conducted through the use of charades.
- There is an extreme disparity of wealth in Chile. It was especially apparent for me when going from the social housing complex where we worked in La Florida to the enormous, sparkling, six-story shopping mall across town.
- People are incredibly resilient. Patricia was not letting cancer or a partial leg amputation dampen her spirits or keep her from setting goals for her future. She wants to study English and become a translator or interpreter one day.
- Chile has come a long way since transitioning from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which spanned from 1973-1990, into a democracy. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago is doing great work to shed light on the terrible human rights violations from that time and to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.
- If you let a 6-year-old get her hands on paint and rollers, she might paint the dog.
- Habitat for Humanity volunteers are very well taken care of, as are guests in a Chilean home! Paulina, Patricia’s mother, made us wonderful meals for lunch every day and always had snacks ready. She even went as far as putting Pringles directly into our mouths when our hands were covered in paint!
- It felt really good to tell people that I was participating in this volunteer project with the full support and encouragement of my employer.
On the last day, we had an extra special lunch and a little dedication ceremony to say goodbye and wish Patricia well in her new room. She was already making plans for how she would decorate it. Her stepfather, an amazingly generous and hardworking man, thanked us for coming all the way to Chile to support his family. He shared a saying they have that perfectly summed up our week together: "La casa es chica, pero el corazón es grande.” The house is small, but the heart is big. Tears were shed, to say the least.
All the Chilean people I met were so kind and welcoming that I almost “missed” my flight home so I could stay forever. If I didn’t love VolunteerMatch so much, I just might have!
The Whole Crew