“If you’ve come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us go together.”
I think this quote sums up my experience of international volunteering. I first went to India in 2001 with Maynooth Mission Outreach and, as most volunteers do, I thought I would change the world. It was not long before I realised how naïve I had been and that the people who benefit most from these experiences are the volunteers themselves.
But I was not finished with India or with the idea of working and campaigning on justice and peace issues. In 2008, while teaching in England, I became involved with BOVA (Bosco Volunteer Action), the volunteer sending organisation of the Salesians in the UK. This was to be the start of my addiction to the Salesian way and a connection with the SDB community in the Salesian province of Bangalore, India.
I spent six months living and working with 40 ex-child labourers in a rural part of Karnataka where the Salesians offer a rehabilitation programme for poor and abandoned youth. The difference this time was that I was aware that I was there as a learner and that the concept of ‘helping’ was a concept that is now defunct in the ‘development’ agenda.
When we say we are going to ‘help’ others, we immediately disempower ‘the other’ and presume that we are the ones who are ‘developed’ and ‘not in need of help’.
The training weekends that I experienced with BOVA in Bollington before my departure had turned my concept of volunteering on its head. I was left wondering ‘why am I actually doing this?’ ‘For whose benefit?’ And how can I make my experience one that is beneficial for everyone involved? I now see the concept of international volunteering as an essential part of education and youth ministry today. Young adults (and not so young adults) should embrace the opportunity to spend time in a community in the Global South as part of a development education programme and also as part of a faith development experience.
So it is with great excitement and enthusiasm that the Salesians in Ireland have started SAVIO (Salesian Volunteers Ireland & Overseas) in order to provide opportunities for adults to live and work with poor youth in Salesian communities worldwide and also to provide a development education experience which will support them before, during and after their placement.
It is essential that this programme be a responsible one that addresses the criticisms of international volunteering and provides an opportunity where participants are introduced to an experiential educational experience: their experience abroad, reflecting on that experience and putting their experience into action – continued involvement with justice and peace issues on return. A responsible programme also needs to ensure that the voice of the host community is heard and not exploited in the process.
When I returned to Ireland in 2009 I was so full of enthusiasm because of my experience and decided to do a Masters in Development Studies at Kimmage DSC in Dublin. As part of that course I had the opportunity to return to India in order to carry out research on this concept of short-term international volunteering.
The Salesian communities in Bangalore kindly agreed to participate in the research and were asked what they thought about the concept of international volunteering as they are sometimes inundated by volunteers from Europe and the US. One of the most moving responses I got was from a Salesian priest who works for the development office in Bangalore.
He said: “I’d say most volunteers haven’t got what they were looking for in that their expectations were not necessarily the right ones… But I’d also say that hardly any of them were sorry for what they experienced in those projects… The happiest thing for us is the feedback that they are so grateful for the experience because it has changed young people a lot, in their perspectives to life, to their own situations, their lifestyles and attitudes that they have back home. That is the biggest change they experience and I believe we contribute to them”.
So who is ‘helping’ who? The host communities that I spoke to perceive this experience to have a profound effect on the lives and attitudes of the volunteers. It is a process of ‘conscientisation’ as programmes like the one which SAVIO offers can create awareness of development issues, promote international solidarity between people and communities and give those who volunteer a faith experience and a poverty experience. This has the possibility of motivating them to address the root causes of poverty in the ‘West’.
The Salesian community and the children I lived with in India have become an important part of my life, and my home community in Ardattin, Co. Carlow continues to contribute financially to that project through various fundraising events. It would be fantastic to continue working with disadvantaged youth in India but I have had to ask myself, where am I most useful?
In my opinion, the real work is here, in Ireland: campaigning and creating awareness of justice and peace issues, staying involved with the preparation and formation of volunteers so that we contribute to enhancing the world-view and cultural capital of all those involved.
The volunteer experience can be one that builds relationships of trust and solidarity between people located at opposite ends of the economic and social spectrum and broadens one’s cultural, social and faith experiences.
At a recent meeting in Rome to celebrate the focus of Salesian Mission Day 2011, the co-ordinators of seven of the Salesian volunteer organisations from Europe, US and Australia came together with Fr Václav Klement, the Salesian General Councillor for the Missions. The Rector Major met with the group towards the end of the two-day meeting (photo above) and spoke about how important the Salesian Lay Missionary and volunteer programmes have become for Salesian communities worldwide. He emphasised that volunteering is not a vocation in itself, it is a step of the journey and an integral part of formation in a young person’s life.
He also placed the movement within the Youth Ministry framework by suggesting that it is the best expression of Salesian youth ministry, where committed young people are ready to share life in full with the Salesian community and carry out the Salesian mission with them.