This I Believe: Volunteering
I tried to join the Peace Corps for the first time in 1983. The operator on the phone knew that she was talking to a child, but she sent me the information on volunteering anyway. I realized, too, that ’83 would not be the year that I would enter the Peace Corps. Having reached only my ninth birthday, I had no foreign language skills; I lacked general skills, too. But these facts did not bother me. From somewhere deep inside I knew that I had a passion for helping others; I knew that through volunteerism, I could help change the world.
My first opportunity to volunteer came at age fifteen. I went to Tampico, Mexico, with the United Methodist Church to help a tiny church that was struggling to rebuild the roof, which had been destroyed. They had few materials, fewer people, and no money. Originally, I was to go with my father and a group of fifteen to twenty others, but due to a conflict, my father had to back out. He asked if I still wanted to go; I said, “yes,” so my parents helped me with fundraising, and I began to get excited. I had just started studying Spanish at my junior high school. I practiced over and over the phrase I had just learned: “Buenos Dias;” I practiced and practiced until the fundraising was complete. Then in March 1989, I left with our small group for Mexico.
I remember very little about the Mexican countryside, but as we entered the city of Tampico, I remember seeing a child begging with his mother. I saw roadside vendors and make-shift stages for local entertainment. I was awestruck. I could not wait to see the church. I was amazed by its smallness; it looked no bigger than a two-car garage. I stood unable to believe that people choose this tiny church as a place to worship. I had grown up in small country churches and was unable, until that moment, to fathom a smaller one. The site looked even worse because the back portion of the church was essentially a system of poles holding up the scaffolding.
Behind the church building was another building with a kitchen. The parishioners gave us a room above the kitchen to stay in. We were expecting to have to share a room, but I never expected to be sleeping on the floor with fifteen other people. The next morning the women from the church came to cook for us. They prepared a huge breakfast, but against our wishes, refused to sit and eat with us, preferring to eat after we had finished. Then the pastor and foreman sat down with our translator and worked out a schedule to repair the roof.
I was immediately drawn by the ease with which our translator transitioned between Spanish and English. While I had made good grades in Spanish class, the rhythms and the sounds of real-world Spanish still felt foreign to me. While feeling isolated by the language, I felt accepted in a way that transcends the spoken word.
The first message I received through the translator was that I would not be allowed to work on the roof. Besides being culturally unacceptable for a female to roof with an all-male crew, I was also recovering from a serious illness. But I had come this far to help people, so I volunteered my services as a “go-for.” Roaming the construction site, I asked people if they needed for me to fetch anything. I spent my days retrieving soda and crackers for the crew.
While I didn’t learn any construction skills, I did learn how to listen. The men from our group were happy to explain terms that I did not yet understand: re-bar, scaffolding, concrete mixtures. The women from our group and from the church taught me new Spanish words: “cuchara” vasos,” and “cocinar.” I would repeat the words, and though I did not understand, the women smiled and hugged me. “Bien,” they would say. It made me feel special.
I loved the attention; to me, it was the best part of the trip. However, it was not the only part. I was dulled beyond belief at the church services we attended. The pastor’s evangelical style seemed to go on for hours. To occupy myself, I admired the architecture and looked at the poles in the back of the church, but I could not concentrate on the service. It was too long. However, the fellowship after the service was worth the wait, when church members came to greet us. This was their custom and to me, it was welcomed. I enjoyed the hugs and the handshakes. Their kindness transcended any language barrier.
One night after the service, a member from the church who was helping to rebuild the roof approached me. He was huge, standing a good foot above my height. He looked at me, and although I was not afraid, I had no idea what to say. So I looked back, tipping my head and saying in a loud voice with no hesitation, “Dios te bediga.” It must have been something I had heard in the countless hours of sermons. It was my first attempt at communicating in Spanish without a translator. I had no idea what I had said, but the man simply nodded in response. At that instant, I felt completely accepted.
Throughout the rest of the week, I watched as the men made the concrete from scratch and passed it to the roof like buckets in a fire brigade. I was amazed at the rhythm and momentum with which they moved the concrete – no spills and no injuries for the entire week. Although I was not allowed to help them, I knew I had an important role in the roof’s completion. I continued my duties as a runner, carrying frosty sodas to the men who were working and helping the women in the kitchen cook our meals. All the time I was helping, I was also continuing to practice my listening skills.
We were lucky. We managed to finish the roof, perhaps because it was a small section. Feeling tired and ready to head home, I packed and began the journey back to North Carolina. In Tampico, I fell in love with the Spanish language. I saw firsthand the need for technical help. My experience in Tamipco inspired me to master the Spanish language and it cemented my commitment to volunteerism. But what stands out the most in my mind was that volunteer. I remember that look he gave me in the church – that look of complete acceptance. After getting home I looked up the phrase that I had so spontaneously said to him. It took me a while to find it, but when I did, I understood his acceptance; I understood why he nodded. The phrase that I had so ignorantly used in the church has been my guide throughout my travels as I repeat to myself, “God bless you.”
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