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Essays, Words

Volunteer Spirit

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A version of this was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer

“You, of all people, are joining a forest cleanup somewhere in the middle of Manila? First of all, I never even knew there was a forest in Manila and second, you, of all people?”

This was said to me by a friend who learned about my recent attempts at altruism. Initially, her disbelief incited me to mull over the many misconceptions some people may have about me, but in the end, it made me reflect on the level of unawareness some people choose to live with.

The reality is, there are those who go through life oblivious of the people and environment that make up their world. And there are those who consciously see each and every relationship and experience as part of themselves—as catalysts for their soulful development. I would like to believe that I am one of the latter. Inadvertently, it is this sense of kinship with everyone and everything around me that has spurred my foray into the selfless yet fulfilling world of volunteerism.

As individuals with diverse mindsets, we all react rather differently to the seemingly prosaic social tableaus that scream for our attention every day: a barefoot child begging for money; an disabled man asking for food; or perhaps litter-infested streets, parks and drainages waiting to be cleaned. Whether we like it or not, these scenes (and even more poignant ones) paint our daily picture of life. They have easily become the perennial subjects of our social canvass.

Some choose to look the other way, others opt to ignore what they see, several acknowledge the problem but would rather not do anything, and only a very few decide to make a difference.

This is where we can draw the line between the subjects—those who become part of the picture; the observers—the uninvolved onlookers; and the artists—the ones who dare to dream big dreams for the country, the ones bold enough to envision a more beautiful and colorful picture of life, and more importantly, the ones who have the courage to pick up their instruments and create into a living reality the vividness of their imagination.

This, I believe, is what volunteers are truly made of.

Becoming a volunteer is not as complicated as the uninitiated would presume. The only prerequisite is a sincere desire to help—to give a part of oneself for the enrichment of other people’s lives and the world at large.

Where do you start? As the popular saying goes, charity begins at home. Try calling your village association or local community office to check if there are any existing civic or environmental programs you can join. If there are none, start one with your family or friends. This will motivate you to finally do something about certain issues you may have been wanting to address in your own backyard, as it were. It may also finally put at end to your complaining and allow your mouth to rest by letting your hands and feet do the work for a change. This may be as simple as joining fundraising activities, clean-up drives, recycling projects or even livelihood programs where you can share your expertise in any field, be it computers, arts and crafts, reading and writing, cooking or any other useful skill that could mean a more sustainable life for others.

You can bring new life to children with cancer by reading storybooks to them, empower young women to start their own business by training them with essential skills, nourish young minds by teaching street children to read and write, bring renewed confidence to survivors of child abuse by being their friend, gain wisdom from the elderly by spending time with them, or give back to the environment by cleaning parks and planting trees.

There are infinite volunteering opportunities as there are innumerable people in need of sustainable development. I would like to give emphasis to the word “sustainable,” for there is a severe contrast between merely giving alms to beggars and inspiring them to make a living and stand on their own two feet with a sense of dignity and worth. No amount of volunteering can ever add up to the fulfillment of seeing former indigent people finally sever the need for volunteers.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a socially-aware household. As early as my grade school years, I was already enmeshed in the often frenzied yet amusing world of national and local elections as either a campaign volunteer or a poll-watcher. Some of my most memorable summers also involved newspaper drives, car wash projects, and selling biodegradable laundry soap made by struggling local communities. Coming from a private Catholic high school has likewise given me leverage in this area as it proved instrumental in developing compassion towards others through the various outreach programs and activities I was constantly exposed to.

Participation in these kinds of endeavors honed my capacity to proactively carry out my values and beliefs. It strengthened my notion that the power of positive change lies within us and that no matter how seemingly insignificant our contribution to society may be, we can always send out a ripple strong enough to create a wave of change in people’s lives and touch them in more ways than we could ever imagine.

One of my most unforgettable volunteer works entailed teaching a child to read and write. There’s an incredible kind of magic that happens when you see the eyes of a child looking at you, eager to learn, to absorb every word you say. And there’s an even greater miracle that happens when you begin to see yourself in those eyes and come face to face with your soul and feel your interconnectedness with all beings. That is when you realize that any act of kindness you do for others, you ultimately do for yourself.

How many times have we heard the phrase, “I’m only human?” More often than not, people who say this fail to see the divine in them. But perhaps it is their own humanity that they really fail to see. Maybe being only human is not the problem. Maybe not being human enough is. Because it is only in celebrating our humanity that we are able to see ourselves in others and it is only in connecting with others that we able to recognize our oneness and bring hope of a better life.

This, I believe, is the greatest gift of volunteers. Yes, me, of all people. 

About Paolo Mangahas

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