Sunday, April 27, 2008

Call Then Losers If You Want: What It Means To Be a Volunteer By Patrick Furlong

So this concludes my series on volunteer life. After reading all the guest authors entries, I just had to write one myself!

I always wanted to fight poverty. Sounds both weird and cheesy, I know. But while friends had weekend soccer matches, I was with my mom, walking around Central Ave. in Albuquerque passing out Egg McMuffins to the homeless. I don’t know if I ever knew how it was forming me, but slowly but surely, it was.

At LMU it felt like one ideal and cause after another, I was on the front lines. Poverty didn’t just move me, it angered me. Looking back, I suppose there were issues behind the surface motivating me as well. Poverty was something to be angry at for sure, but I think my unusually strong anger spoke to a personal spiritual poverty I had no idea how to tackle.

As graduation neared, loved ones dropped buzz words like law school, career and 401K, but all I could think about were the buzz words that had defined my college experience: poverty, Latin America, social justice. I’d browse the Peace Corps website and leaf through application packets from several domestic and international volunteer organizations. Networking, law school, and my 401K would have to wait.

I once read textbooks on poverty. I memorized facts and figures, using them in exams and conversations with like-minded “idealists” and skeptical “realists.” Today, in place of those stats are the names and stories of people I’ve come to know and love. And that makes reality all the more painful.

Those skeptical realists I battled with in college were right: I can’t save the world from poverty and injustice. When I leave South America, poverty and suffering will linger around, maybe even increase. Children I know and love deeply will still go to bed hungry and wake up forgotten. Poverty, in the lives of my Chilean neighbors, my Ecuadorian students, and my South American friends, and yes, even myself- will persist. It begs a rationale question I had long struggled to answer: why?

Until a little girl named Tamara broke her ankle the other day. A fellow volunteer and I tried to comfort her and calm her as we transported her from the park to the center, and then to the most depressing hospital I can imagine. But what most heartbreaking is what followed…

Tamara’s mom arrives. She has been crying for hours now, she's in intense pain. And her mom gets there and the first thing she asks is not "are you ok?" Instead, a curt "What the hell did you do?" is her first question to her daughter. I try and imagine being eight years old and knowing that the person that should be there to support you is instead ready to yell at you and possibly hit you when you return home.

This is what we are up against: a system that is depressing, and parents who know nothing about child care- despite our best efforts. The realists shake their heads and mumble: I told you so. In July, I return to their world, and I return with nothing to show for my time here except a depleted bank account, feelings about love that don’t mix with the societal race for success, and memories of kids that were poor when I arrived and poor when I left.

And yet, in being with Tamara, I realized why we still do this kind of work, even when the results remain elusive: I'm working with precious children who deserve better. We have no right to quit on them, in spite all that's stacked against them. Maybe someday when Tamara’s daughter gets injured and sent to a hospital, Tamara will run in and instead of being angry, be concerned. “Are you ok?” will be her first words. And maybe she will treat her own daughter better because when presented between options for how to care for children, she chose the route we teach in the center instead of the poverty stricken method her mother was raised with and raised her with.

Change is slow. Maybe we won't change these kids lives today, but maybe someday, some change somewhere can be credited to a couple gringos who cared more than most others thought was wise. This much I know, we have no right not to try. Paul Farmer, in Mountains Beyond Mountains speaks of fighting poverty as giving up our status of being on the winning team and instead uniting with the poor in fighting a long defeat. I think of his words, and I think of my life these past two years. To do service is to use every fiber of your being to tell the rest of the world, Call them losers if you want, but that makes me one too.'

In my classroom at our downtown center, La Marin.

While this concludes my series of guest entries on what volunteerism has meant to people, I would encourage you to submit a piece should you have the desire and it will be included. Thanks to all my guests writers and to all of you who have read the series. For any of you thinking of service work, I hope it helped!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It feels so good to be a loser doesnt it? I wouldnt change it for the world. This was an amazing series. Thanks for bring these wonderful insights.

tons of respect brother.