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For a long time I am involved in voluntary work, and I used to work in ”different camps”. Once I travel around the worlds and helped everyone and their dog, today it is me who host volunteers. This experience gave me a chance to find out the answers to some sophisticated questions, understand what is “right way to do that and this”, or the other way round, lose the whole idea. I want to share with you something very intimate, something that will never be published anytime and anywhere - my fuck-ups, accomplishments and just thoughts.

“I can do whatever I want. I am a volunteer”

I am going to start with some background info about me. I grew up in Russia, became a doctor, worked in a state hospital, then got a specialization in tropical medicine in Belgium and I went to Guatemala as a volunteer from there.

Until this moment, I had no idea either about volunteering, or about its culture, cultivated by society or parents.

When I was on the point of going on my first mission, to up-country Guatemalan village, I spent a lot of time chatting with organizers, trying to set them up for as many benefits as possible. My transportation, medical insurance, food and accommodation were supposed to be covered. I was asked to bring medical supplies but I instantly stated that I was “going to live there for the whole year” and I needed some personal belongings, so – I beg your pardon. I considered myself as a valuable asset and of course as a hero – I am a doctor, after all, I am going to “work for free”!

I had no idea that the organizers raised money from the individual sponsors, and every time I asked for more, less money left on medical expendables and medications.

It took me a long while to figure it out, and to tell the truth: when we started to hire volunteers ourselves. So every time when I want to tell somebody: “Don’t you understand that!” – I recollect myself 4 years ago.

“Being a volunteer doesn’t mean being a saint”

Just admit: you are egoist. The very word “volunteer” implies it. And there is nothing wrong in that. You do it for your own pleasure, for a line in your CV, for a picture in Instagram, for that feeling of being a superhero. Most probably, in your mind you pat yourself and say “I am a good person. As for me – I am a human being! Not like all these…”, glancing at your friends and acquaintances contemptuously, who work on high-paid jobs, giving birth to the second child and buying the latest iPhone. Even if it’s hard for you to admit it, you know for sure, even if you can’t use this volunteering experience in future life, it will positively affect your karma, and the Lady Luck, as a consequence, will follow you on your way.

Not mentioning the fact that unique people from all over the world usually participate in volunteering and they, as a general matter, have good jobs, own business or interesting life experience. It is a good networking, which costs much more than money do.

At the same time, it is very easy to say “I am volunteer, after all, I don’t own anything to anybody. Not likely. I came here to work my tail off for free, be glad. I can oversleep. I can make a house a complete mess. I can set my vacation whenever I want to. I can even not come at all! Since you don’t pay me! Are you out of your mind to demand something from me?”

I thought the same way when I was a volunteer and kept on thinking the same way, when started to work with them: “They are volunteers. They are already good people just because they decided to make such a big step and come here”.

But suddenly I realized: why, if the volunteers get various benefits, I cannot demand anything from him or her? What right does he or she have to tell me: “I can work, can stop working, I am a volunteer!”? Volunteer doesn’t have this right. In spite of the fact that the compensation isn’t measured in money, volunteer has it for sure. That means play fair game – volunteer needs to work for the right to be called a “hero”. And he must work properly because otherwise this deal is feeble and unfair: a hero-volunteer has all the rights and no duties, while organization has just duties and rights.

“We are responsible for what we are doing”

There are two types of volunteers: professionals (qualified specialists) and non-professionals (students). We demand no fees from professionals in our organization. But second category is requested to pay the fees. And I will explain, why.

We are responsible for what we are doing. Even experienced doctors sometimes need advice from their colleagues, nothing to say about students, who are at the very start of their way in such serious and crucial field as medicine. They can’t treat anybody independently, they need to be taught and directed, and we need to organize lectures and lessons to tell them how the things are. This is an extensive and difficult work, which needs tremendous effort and tons of time. We take fees from the students but they get much more in return: incredible and invaluable experience, they work directly with patients, they get recommendation letters from the international organizations that rise their chances to study in famous universities and many other things, which cannot be estimated in money's worth . In this case, the help turns to them, not from them.

 “Is there other life after volunteering?”

And so you left. The holidays are over, and maybe the project or your contract is finished. And here comes emptiness.

Of course, everything depends on how serious it all was. It depends on what extent it was meaningful for you and believed you in the fact that you change the world or not. Did you believe?

Everything lost its value for me. “Normal” job, money, people who don’t do the same thing or something similar. I got depressed, frustrated and the only thing I wanted was to come back. However, there wasn’t any place to return – the clinic, where I worked, capped out because of the armed conflict in the region. On other projects I finished my contracts and they had other doctors instead of me. So I found myself alone, with my impossibility to build in to the normal world again.

Many of our volunteers feel the same. They write us after a month, two months, half a year: ”I miss it. I want to come back. I cannot stay in dusty Moscow/ grey Saint-Petersburg. I am not able to work in the office”. Our architects are waiting for us to start building a new clinic. Our doctors are looking forward to spending their vacation not at seaside resort, at work with us. It is special, strange and stupid feeling, as many people can think, it is an addiction to this boundless thrill, thrill of understanding that you live not for nothing.

A lot of people can give it up. It’s like after withdrawals. You need to get over it, sweat it out and forget it. But somebody fails to do it. As it happened to me.

Author of the text - Viktoriya Valikova, doctor and founder of non-commerical project Health&Help.

Translated by - Alexandra Khovanskaya

Date of publication - 23.01.2018

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