When I first started volunteering with the Singapore International Foundation seven years ago on a speech therapy training project in Cambodia, I had a fixed idea of volunteerism and a rough notion that it would be fulfilling. I encountered everything I expected; the joy of sharing and giving my time and knowledge, fulfillment in training and empowering others, the challenges of being in foreign and limited circumstances, and the rewards of overcoming these as a team and with the new friends made within the first six months of the projects. If my participation ended there, I would have been no wiser about volunteerism.
But I continued, and was challenged to question my commitment to making a difference. It’s easy to commit to a role when it takes six months, but when six months becomes a year, and then two, four, and more, volunteering can become a second job. And when it was inconvenient or frustrating, or called for repeated sacrifices, I had to ask if I was just a fair-weather volunteer who would participate when conditions were convenient (after all, there were no contractual obligations) or whether I was prepared to stand by and work steadily for it!
I awoke from my naivety to the complexity of giving. I realised that volunteering is much more than feelgood moments. While the project was something temporary, fun and enriching for me, for the people I was working with in Cambodia, the implications were more significant — they were gaining knowledge that would improve the education, healthcare and lives of the special needs kids they worked with, and their own personal empowerment. This work could impact them for a lifetime. What I had, and took for granted, mattered so much to another. Going beyond the superficial feel-good to see that there was something quite real was an awakening — that I can make a difference, and making it is going to take much hard work.
This unexpected side of volunteerism has forever changed me for the better. And perhaps by being a better me, I play my part in creating a better world.”