Volunteers in Boquete
I remember as a young child (first or second grade), I got into a fight with a friend. As my mom held and comforted me, she gave me a good piece of advice for life: "You know, honey, if you want your friends to be nice to you, you have to be nice to your friends."
Several months ago, I volunteered for a project with an organization, was told repeatedly that I was doing a wonderful job, and then I was fired. Abruptly. No warning. No explanation. No thank you for the work I had done. When I wrote to say how destructive this action had been to me, this organization let me know what they thought of me.
Nothing. I was never dignified with a response.
When I told others about my experience, I was saddened to learn that although there are some organizations here in Boquete who treat their volunteers like the gods and goddesses they are, many don't.
Here are some examples of other volunteers who have had bad experiences.
- "I kept showing up and they weren't organized so I sat around doing nothing and waited for them to get their stuff together. My time is valuable- but not to them."
- "I love what they do. But they don't treat their people well. Maybe it's a power thing. They feel like they don't need to be nice since they have a lot of volunteers, so they're not."
- "They didn't train me and frankly the job they gave me was a bad fit for me. They called me on the carpet and told me I wasn't trying hard enough. I was humiliated."
- "I told them about a serious problem I was having with another volunteer and they just ignored me."
This list could go on and on. But I'll stop here. Do your own experiment. Ask people who have volunteered how they were treated, and I guarantee that in addition to hearing good experiences, you too will get horror stories from hurt/angry folks.
It ain't pretty.
When we first came to Panama 13 years ago, there really weren't any volunteer agencies except for fund-raising organizations like the 20-30 charity. As Boquete residents saw so many needs in the community, grass roots efforts began to grow. Soon, animals were being neutered and hungry were people being fed. As needs were recognized, volunteer organizations began to grow. I'm amazed and awed by their dedication and service.
But I am also really saddened by the stories I hear of how many volunteers are being treated.
Some may argue that these volunteers (including me) should have stuck around and tried to make things better. Somebody told me to develop a thicker skin. But if you want to volunteer to make things better in Chiriqui, there are organizations that help the handicapped, give us great jazz and blues, knit baby blankets, provide care for the sick and dying, help stop crime, lead us toward God, sterilize or rescue animals, feed hungry folk, and share their love of nature, the arts, and photography.
What it boils down to is that if these organizations want to keep their friends, they need to be nice to their friends. All the people quoted above quit volunteering at the agencies who treated them poorly and moved on to other volunteer opportunities. Why stay friends with someone who isn't nice to you?
Folks who volunteer do so because they like the social interaction, they like the feeling that giving to others gives back to them, they like the satisfaction of seeing their good works come to fruition in all sorts of ways: people dancing to good jazz, a once abused dog finding a good home, a dying patient finding solace at the end of their life, or a new born baby all cuddly and warm in a hand-knitted blanket.
Those agencies who cultivate and keep their volunteers happy are those who thank them and then thank them again- verbally, in writing, in their newsletters, with certificates or other tokens of affection and with parties. Parties are a huge way of saying thanks: these celebrations encourage their volunteers to eat drink and be merry, have fun with all these other folk who are as wonderful as you are for giving so much.
Volunteers also like to hear how they've made a difference. Not just in statistics, but in individual stories of the positive ways they have impacted the community.
But the most important thing is for a volunteer is to feel that his/her specific gifts are being used and are being appreciated. That their time and talents are valuable to and respected by the cause that they are giving their blood sweat and tears to. That when there is a problem (and as long as there are people, there are problems), that they will be listened to and some kind of action will be taken- even if it isn't what they necessarily envisioned it to be.
That the friends that they have been nice to are being nice back to them.
My next blog will highlight an agency in town who has a reputation for doing superb work and treating their volunteers well. Amigos de Animales.